Perhaps it’s the distance we’ve put between ourselves and the “crouch, touch, pause, engage” phase of our history, but we’ve lately rediscovered the great stories of our national beginnings, and our fiction writers have fallen upon them with glad cries, like pirates on a box of doubloons. Last year, there was Hamish Clayton’s amazing Wulf and now we have newcomer Lawrence Patchett’s equally impressive and unusual collection of stories, I Got His Blood on Me.
Some stories have a foot in the magic realism tradition. In All Our Friends and Ghosts, the ghost of Maud Pember Reeves (a historical figure, a feminist and Fabian socialist, the wife of William Pember Reeves, who was the early 20th century’s equivalent of New Zealand’s High Commissioner to England) haunts a Kapiti local government official planning to create a tacky hologram to exploit her memory. In the title story, a Pakeha-Maori appears bloodied and staggering on a motorway in the 21st century, where David Miller, recently unemployed public servant and amateur historian, goes to his aid. But neither story is really about the ghosts; rather, the ghosts are devices to illuminate aspects of the modern characters and how far (or little) removed their modern lives are from the frontier. And they’re reminders to those dealing with historical figures that our ancestors are (or were) people, too.
Most of the other stories are vignettes of historical fiction: A Hesitant Man, set among the wreckage of inter-island ferry the Penguin; The Road to Tokomairiro, describing a coaching accident in goldrush Otago; The Man Beside the Pool, telling the story of a man who enters an endurance swim at saltwater baths in Manly, Sydney, during the Great Depression, just to qualify for the food to give his wife and baby; and one of the best of the collection, The Man Who Would be King, a snippet from the life of Dick Seddon’s days as a publican on the West Coast goldfields. The characterisation and sense of time and place are economically and effortlessly rendered, perfect to the last detail.
One story is set in the present day, but is nevertheless on a frontier of sorts. The Snack Machine raises ghosts of a different kind, as the reader’s stereotypes and conditioned responses are cleverly marshalled to create expectations of the ending that the author cleverly subverts. You’ll go a long way before you find a collection of stories that so engage, tease, taunt and thrill your intelligence as these.
I GOT HIS BLOOD ON ME: FRONTIER TALES, by Lawrence Patchett (VUP, $35).
John McCrystal is a writer.