Wellington writer Barbara Anderson’s novel Change of Heart is the story of Oliver Gurth Perkins, an elderly dentist with an “adequate but not grotesque” moustache, and a fondness for cryptic crosswords. His story is interrupted by interludes from long-suffering wife Hester and their middle-aged drifter son Copper. After a “cardiac incident” and a spell in hospital, Oliver – a self-confessed “Good Enough Father” – resolves to change his ways and make up for 40 years of benign neglect of his wife.
But Oliver soon discovers that his son wants to abandon his WINZ career and return to university, his former daughter-in-law wants to abandon his granddaughter Poppy at their house for a few months and his wife wants to abandon them all, temporarily, and nip off to Spain with ebullient gay upholsterer José, her Spanish teacher.
Oliver doesn’t share Hester’s passion for the Spanish odyssey. He prefers New Zealand, a “country not noted for its animación”. So he finds himself left behind in Thorndon with feisty granddaughter and dithering son, all in the care of Teresa, José’s exotic-dancer sister.
The house changes at a hectic pace during Hester’s three-week absence. Teresa introduces flamenco lessons, sexual frisson and feasts of “massive proportions and unknown ingredients” to the Perkins household; Oliver faces down the bankruptcy of his past-it dental practice; a lost relative turns up out of the blue, promising Copper a large inheritance; and love blooms at 59 Tinakori Rd.
The result is a witty, wry and absurd novel, as you would expect from a writer as sharp as Anderson. Oliver is such a marvellous narrator that Hester and Copper’s intermittent contributions to the narrative are dull, confusing intrusions. But the book’s early scenes, a meander through the eccentric
Perkins family history, mislead with their leisurely pace: Change of Heart hurtles towards a cosy all-in-the-family resolution at terrific speed, sprinting through its plot, gathering up characters and leaving the reader more breathless than creaky old Oliver.
Anderson is a writer of great economy, but the novel is too slight for its own story and winds up far too soon. There simply isn’t time for tension or twists and, by the final scene, we are as bemused as Oliver.
Things are grim up north in Shonagh Koea’s new novel Yet Another Ghastly Christmas. The book has an appealing, old-fashioned air, from the dainty ways of heroine Evelyn to the book’s humour, which is the sort that demands (or rather, asks very politely) to be described as delicious. The novel looks backwards in more ways than one, treading ground very familiar to Koea fans: here again we find a widow of a certain age who retreats into genteel poverty and is tormented by the machinations of brash, unfeeling acquaintances.
As in her last novel, the whimsical and silly Time for a Killing, Christmas is a mixed bag of brilliant detail and broad comedy, its villains clearly labelled and ripe for comic comeuppance. Evelyn wants nothing more than to be left alone on Christmas Day with fish and chips, “an unimportant little riesling” and her book about a suicidal soldier, but must fend off her nouveau riche non-friend Jennifer Clark and Jennifer’s odious husband Marky.
Missing her husband, bruised by an affair with a bounder of a banker, Evelyn hides in her seaside cottage, pondering “the insoluble horror of how Christmas could be managed”. Jennifer and assorted well-heeled cohorts spend much of the novel giving the eastern suburbs of Auckland a bad name, trying to bully Evelyn into a Smeg kitchen, a leaky townhouse, a relationship with a homeless musician, an “el cheapo” BMW and a post-Christmas turkey fricassee. Even her best friend Andrea, a champagne socialist who wears clothes “in mud colours, handwoven by Third World villagers who were trying to help themselves” and gets her hair cut by someone called Sick, is too self-absorbed to be useful.
Christmas reminds us of Koea’s gift for evoking the sensual pleasures of a home, from good bed linen and delicate china teacups to the chaotic beauty of a cottage garden. Some things in the novel, however, are a little too familiar, and Koea seems to be plundering her own work. Evelyn is a lighter, brighter version of Elaine in The Wedding at Bueno-Vista: they are both widows under siege, with an offstage son or two and acquaintances who tell them they interrupt too much. Both have bad dates with tight-fisted schoolmasters, and share a much criticised propensity to say “Oh”, as well as a fondness for old silk, pink nail polish and red hair-ribbons. Both novels end with the romantic arrival of man-bearing-picnic, a resurrection of the heroine’s devoted, sophisticated husband, someone tall with “eyes of an uncertain colour”, ready to whisk her away and treat her like a lady.
True worth triumphs via true love (or, at least, a nice day out), just as it used to do all the time in novels in the 19th century. Evelyn puts up with as much abuse as Anne Elliot in Persuasion and gets to sail off into the sunset, too – although, personally, I would be suspicious of a man who kits out his yacht with turquoise sails and matching curtains. Readers may accept the coy, overfamiliar conclusion, but the author might consider varying her winner and losers next time around.