Book Review: Salt Picnic, by Patrick Evans

cv_salt_picnicAvailable in bookshops nationwide.

Patrick Evans’ Salt Picnic is set in Ibiza in 1956, where young writer Iola has just arrived expecting Roman Holiday-esque adventure, naïve to the political realities of Francoist Spain. The novel’s divided into four parts: Iola arrives in Ibiza and makes observations, Iola meets an excitable American photographer, Iola meets a prim English doctor, and Iola goes with the doctor to a nearby salt island for the titular picnic. Spare-plotted and with few English speaking characters, it’s a difficult book to classify; we could maybe think of it as an experiment in writing an international political thriller with the strictly personal stakes of the bildungsroman and the densely descriptive, self-consciously sensual prose of the contemporary literary novel.

Your enjoyment of Salt Picnic will depend on whether you prefer loveliness to energy. The novel’s unmistakably the work of a long-term industry insider, with the associated upsides and downsides; the prose is uniformly handsome at the expense of vitality, and its exotic setting shows warning signs of an author settling into that frustrating things-I-saw-on-holiday genre favoured by writers who reckon they no long have to prove anything. Evans has been an outspoken critic of the IIML-to-VUP literary machine, but his own writing has developed the same safe, workshopped quality, playing defence rather than offence – there’s no mistakes. For a fan of the clumsy energy of literary overreachers, it’s as dull as a Mayweather fight.

It’s a shame to see such stateliness from an author like Evans. In his nonfiction work, he’s one of the country’s most charming writers in a discipline not always renowned for charm – you’re unlikely to find another Postcolonial Literature primer that could plausibly be described as Shavian. Look up any article he’s written or any interview and his wit strikes you right away, but while his instinctive feel for the sentence carries over to the novel, the cutting insight doesn’t. Evans’ Gifted, though frustrating for similar reasons, at least found in Frank Sargeson a protagonist allowed to be as clever as his author, while Salt Picnic’s Iola is too naïve and ever-more-bewildered to think anything remotely pointed. Consequently, this is a pretty humourless book; the American’s a little goofy and the Englishman’s bad at crosswords, but otherwise the tone is so sober you’d never guess that a few decades ago Evans was writing comic novels about the bawdy misadventures of a hapless and horny underpants salesman.

Evans has said Salt Picnic is the third in a trilogy of novels inspired by Janet Frame, drawing on her 1956 trip to Ibiza, but that Iola is not intended to resemble Frame. This might be a bluff to avoid once again incurring the wrath of the notoriously combative Frame estate, but Iola is so indistinct a character that it’s difficult to say. There’s been some controversy over whether Evans considers Frame to have had a genuine psychological condition; I wondered if Iola’s extreme passiveness and naiveté is meant to suggest this before considering that it isn’t ideal if you can’t tell whether a writer’s depicting a radically alien schizoid or autistic perspective or if the character’s just boring.

Assuming neurotypicality, Iola’s naiveté about personal, political and sexual matters stretches credibility even for a young woman in the 1950s. She’s written like a sheltered fifteen-year-old despite presumably being an adult – her age is unclear, though she’s been travelling Europe alone for some time before coming to Ibiza. Passive point-of-view characters are a literary standby, but we’re presumably meant to heavily invest in her character given the intimate scale of the story and if we don’t, the story’s revelations fall flat, because they’re meaningful revelations to her and not to us. Plus she’s alone for huge chunks of the book – picture The Great Gatsby with another 30,000 words of Nick Carraway pottering about West Egg looking at old buildings and spying on his neighbours.

I struggled with the novel’s elliptical style, often having no idea what a scene was about thematically and sometimes literally. Evans likes having bashful-monologued Iola refer modestly to ‘that’ without telling us what it is, and I often didn’t know. There are key plot points I’m still unclear on – halfway through the novel Iola seems to be pregnant, but I don’t remember this being mentioned again after a scene where her lover insists she can’t be pregnant. Was he right? Surely Evans would’ve resolved this somehow, but I didn’t pick up on it, don’t remember it, and can’t find it scanning through the book. C.K. Stead confessed to not understanding a number of crucial plot points in his review of Evans’ previous book, The Back of His Head, so I’m not alone here. It’s possible this is an immensely rewarding book if you really put the time in, but I felt no organic impulse to; by the time the novel ended with Iola telling the Englishman she had something to confess, I no longer cared that I didn’t know what that was.

This ambiguity gives the book a lot of thematic leeway. You can’t be sure if a point’s banal or if you’re unperceptive. If the blurb didn’t tell me Salt Picnic was “about mistranslation, fantasy and the historical echoes of ideology”, I would assume I’d missed the thrust of the novel completely. I still don’t think I really get it – Iola meets a fascist, and he’s a right bastard, and she finds out about what happened during the Spanish Civil War. Is this it? I have no idea. If the point of the book is a naïve character’s introduction to the realities of the war – and in a closing note Evans references the lack of real popular awareness about wartime atrocities prior to the 1960s, so this might be it – it doesn’t land, since we already know about these things. Presumably there’s more to it than I picked up on, but the style reflects a reader-adversarial understanding of subtext: if you have to work harder to understand something, you’ll consider it more valuable and profound.

Salt Picnic is a fantastic objet d’art – it’s got a great cover and a great title and if you open it to a random page you’ll be impressed. It’s handsome, admirable, and static. There’s definitely an audience for this book, but it’ll likely leave readers who can’t supply their own engine of interest cold. I’d recommend Salt Picnic for New Zealand fiction completionists, prose aficionados, and those who find their chief literary pleasure in the detective-work of meaning; late Henry James fans might love it.

Reviewed by Joseph Barbon

Salt Picnic
by Patrick Evans
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561698

Reading Favourites – another take – from WORD Christchurch Readers & Writers festival, Friday 29 August

My first session for the WORD Christchurch Writers Festival this year was Reading Favourites: Kate De Goldi, Sarah Laing and Carl Nixon in conversation with Guy Somerset about their favourite New Zealand books. It was an excellent way into WORD, which celebrates reading and writing in the context of Aotearoa.

Author and children’s book reviewer Kate De Goldi was first up, recommending to us Sydney Bridge Upside Down by David Ballantyne – a gothic mystery with an unreliable narrator, and hailed by many as the great unread Kiwi novel. De Goldi said it’s the kind of book you love so much that you give it to someone you fancy as a sort of compatibility test. She spoke very movingly about her love for this novel and introduced what would become a theme: the lack of recognition for the work within New Zealand (although a cult following is now developing), with it consequently going out of print and becoming difficult to find. Happily, Sydney Bridge Upside Down has now been republished by Text Publishing in Australia and is available in NZ bookshops – for example, at the excellent UBS Canterbury stall right here at the festival.
southseas
De Goldi’s second choice was Welcome to the South Seas: Contemporary New Zealand Art for Young People (Auckland University Press) by Gregory O’Brien. She said it entirely lacks that “instructive worthiness” so prevalent amongst children’s non-fiction, and is instead accessible, personal and engaging – for adults as well as kids. And after she read aloud from the book, I immediately wanted to sit down with it and read the rest. Welcome to the South Seas is due to be re-published by AUP, with two companion volumes soon.

cv_hicksvilleAuthor and cartoonist Sarah Laing’s first pick for her favourite NZ book was Hicksville (Victoria University Press, 2012; but ), a graphic novel by Dylan Horrocks, who was in the audience. Laing said she devoured comics as a child, but, as a young woman, found comic book shops to be “scary” and off-putting. But she is rediscovering comics now, and incorporates cartoons in her own novels (as well as publishing the webcomic and blog, Let Me Be Frank). Laing praised Hicksville for its multi-layered, intertextual nature, and the way it creates a utopian version of Aotearoa where comics thrive and are loved by all. There was also a very interesting discussion of the way graphic novels force to you read in a different way.

Laing commented that, due to their ephemeral nature (both in terms of magazine-like publishing and in the sense of not being part of the literary mainstream), comics can be hard to track down. Horrocks is now published in NZ, but for a long time was only published overseas.

fromearthsendLaing’s second choice was From Earth’s End: The Best of New Zealand Comics by Adrian Kinnaird (Random House NZ), which she praised as a unique and extremely useful history of cartooning in New Zealand. Guy Somerset commented that he was interested to learn that NZ used to have a thriving comics publishing industry in the mid-twentieth century, until the moral panic about the effects of cartoons on children’s minds effectively shut it all down.

Novelist Carl Nixon’s first choice was The Day Hemingway Died and other stories by Owen Marshall, which he said was one of the first NZ books he read without being told to. He praised the way Marshall perfectly illustrates human foibles while also producing writing that is laugh-out-loud funny. Nixon then proved this last point by reading an excerpt, which did indeed make us all laugh.
gifted
Nixon also enthusiastically recommended to us Gifted by Patrick Evans (Victoria University Press), a novel about the real-life working relationship between iconic Kiwi authors Janet Frame and Frank Sargeson. Nixon praised Evans for “capturing what you believe to be Sargeson’s voice”. Like Sydney Bridge Upside Down, Gifted has been adapted for the stage.

Finally, Guy Somerset, Books and Culture editor for The Listener, recommended Arena by John Cranna, a futuristic novel of a brutalised dystopia. Somerset said it’s the first NZ book he read, in order to impress his new Kiwi wife.

Reading Favourites was an excellent session, and I was pleased to see many people head straight to the book stall afterwards. I came away with some excellent additions to my (teetering, infinite) To Read Pile – always a good sign that a writers festival has done its job. Looking forward to more to come!

by Elizabeth Heritage, Freelance writer and publisher
www.elizabethheritage.co.nz

Happy Birthday Janet and Reading Favourites with Sarah Jane Barnett & Matt Bialostocki, WORD Festival Friday 29 August

Sarah Jane Barnett is a poet, creative writing tutor, and reviewer from Wellington. Matt Bialostocki is a writer, photographer, and bookseller from Wellington. Together they went to a full day of festival events at the WORD Writers’ & Readers Festival 2014 in Christchurch. After each of the sessions they recorded their conversation. This is what was said in the first two sessions.

Happy Birthday, Janet
Friday, 29 August, 12pm

Owen Marshall, Tusiata Avia, and Bernadette Hall celebrate Janet Frame’s 90th birthday with favourite janet_framereadings and musings. Chaired by Pamela Gordon (Frame’s neice and literary executor).

Sarah: Our first session of the day was quite a session. What did you think?
Matt: The selection of material was great—a short story, four poems, and then a novel excerpt and a poem.
S: Each writer talked about the way Janet had influenced them. Owen Marshall—where did he get that plug from? [During the session Marshall had held up a bath plug on a chain]
M: Willowglen. It’s where Frame lived in Oamaru, a town where Marshall had also lived. He ripped it out of the sink in the corner of a room.
S: Yeah, it seemed important to him that they’d both lived in Oamaru, that they’d inhabited the same space. I was also quite excited by Bernadette Hall ‘stealing’ Frame’s words—in her making them part of her own poem.
M: They were from the novel, State of Seige. Hall used them in her poem, “Dark Pasture.”state of seige
S: It was Hall’s response to Frame’s work. She alternated her lines with Frame’s. That reading floored me; it showed me how much Frame still influences our writers.
M: They all had a personal connection to the work they were reading, and to Frame’s work as a whole. Marshall also noted that while a lot of people related to her fiction, there is a tangible sense of response to her autobiographical work because she was writing about places people knew; they were places they lived and places they shared.
S: He’s an amazing reader. I would like to have Marshall read me one of Frame’s novels.
M: You’d just have to watch out for your bath plug.

Reading Favourites
Friday, 29 August 2.30pm
Kate De Goldi, Sarah Laing, and Carl Nixon talk about two of their favourite New Zealand books with Guy Somerset.

cv_sydney_bridge_upside_downS: That was freaking amazing!
M: Fiction, non-fiction, graphic novels! Let’s quickly cover the books. First, De Goldi told us about Sydney Bridge Upside Down by David Ballantyne. She called it the ‘great unread New Zealand novel’. Laing recommended the graphic novel Hicksville by Dylan Horrocks, and Nixon recommended The Day Hemingway Died and Other Stories by Owen Marshall.
S: Nixon said he felt it shows a darker side to Marshall’s writing. I want to read that.
M: For her second book, De Goldi raved about Welcome to the South Seas: Contemporary New Zealand Art for Young People by Gregory O’Brien. She said that we needed more creative non-fiction for kids in New Zealand. I agree. Laing showed us From Earth’s End: The Best of New Zealand Comics by Adrian Kinnaird. She pointed out the ephemeral nature of NZ comics, and how this means it’s easy to miss new titles. Finally, Nixon spoke to us about Gifted by Patrick Evans—a novel about Janet Frame and Frank Sargeson.
S: His reading was fantastic. So fantastically funny! That is definitely one I’m going to read.
M: It’s developed a cult following.
S: day_hemingway_diedThey all recommended books they came to through a personal process of discovery. I think there’s something in that. Laing read comics as a kid, but then discovered them again in her 30s; The Day Hemingway Died was the first book Nixon discovered himself at age eighteen. De Goldi used the word ‘evangalising’; they really wanted us to read these books—to love them as they did. Many were out of print, though, or first published outside New Zealand. What does that say?
M: Yes—Hicksville was first published by the Canadian publisher Black Eye Productions in 1998 [and VUP in 2012], and Sydney Bridge Upside Down was originally published in 1968 but was out of print for years until De Goldi foisted a copy on a Australian publisher who was over for dinner.
S: De Goldi talked about the value of libraries. That’s where we find out-of-print books.
M: And all of these books were loved by at least one other person on the panel. Actually, Somerset was a great chair. He got them talking about the books so we could hear their varied responses.
S: He called them the ‘uber book group’. I felt encouraged. Nixon said he doesn’t read graphic novels and De Goldi said, ‘You need to learn to read them’. This is something I think for myself.

 

These conversations were recorded and transcribed after the events: Happy Birthday, Janet and Reading Favourites, by Sarah Jane Barnett and Matt Bialostocki.

Dear Charles, Dear Janet: the friendship of Charles Brasch and Janet Frame

An event at the Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival

“Dear Charles, Dear Janet” was a reading of carefully selected excerpts from Janet Frame and Charles Brasch’s correspondence and journals. Sitting at a long table in front of the audience were the four readers—student Georgina Reilly and poet, critic and Landfall editor David Eggleton, to read Frame and Brasch’s correspondence in their early years, and Pamela Gordon and Alan Roddick to read Frame and Brasch’s correspondence in their later years (who respectively act as executors for Janet Frame and Charles Brasch’s estates).
janet_frame_left_and_charles_brasch_with_examples__4c7759896b
I’m familiar with Janet Frame’s work, and I know a certain amount about her life, but hearing these excerpts from Frame and Brasch’s letters made me realise what extraordinary friends the two of them were. It was fascinating to hear Janet Frame’s first, extremely tentative and awkward letter to Charles Brasch, meekly informing him that she had some work “if I can bring myself to show it to anyone”, and later saying “I enclose (with diffidence) a bit of writing”. Brasch’s own letters were initially quite formal, but always encouraging and supportive, and it was so lovely to hear the tone of the letters change as time passed and their friendship grew and grew.

I had had no idea that Charles Brasch had been so dogged about getting Janet Frame financial support; it sounds like he spent at least six or seven years lobbying the government to give her a pension. It was also wonderful to hear how Janet Frame’s world opened up, particularly after gaining the Burns Fellowship at the University of Otago. Suddenly she’s writing to Charles from London, then Baltimore, then New York, and talking about staying at the same writer’s colony as Phillip Roth.

p_RoddickThe readers were all excellent, but for me, the standout was Alan Roddick (right), who (perhaps unintentionally) seemed to embody the ‘character’ of Charles Brasch the best. In one of Janet Frame’s letters to American painter Bill Brown, she described Charles Brasch as “a noble, upright old man with discipline not marrow in his bones”. But it is also clear that he had a great deal of kindness, for which Janet Frame rewarded him with a great deal of admiration and affection. The reading was warmly received by the very large crowd (even if the drone of bagpipes from the capping parade down on Moray Place was not!)

Event reviewed by Feby Idrus, on behalf of Booksellers NZ

Book review: Gorse is Not People by Janet Frame

cv_gorse_is_not_peopleThis is in bookshops now.

One of my most comforting memories of primary school is being read to aloud. With our head on our desks, the warmth of the radiator on our backs and the smell of wet jackets filling the air our teacher read to us and let our imaginations roam.

It’s a similar feeling of homeliness, warmth and comfort I get when I read Janet Frame. I first read Faces in the Water in my first year at Art School; standing in the ground floor of Dunedin’s Central Library I wanted something to read and the name ‘Janet Frame’ seemed familiar but I didn’t know why.

As I devoured that book, then her three-book autobiography, then Owls Do Cry, the New Zealand described – particularly the southern most parts – felt so familiar and so real to me. I wanted to keep parts of these magical books so copied out passages about jars of marigolds and tiled floors of sandwiches and roses growing over carpets and fire guards into a special notebook so I could remember them and keep them close; the best parts.

Since that first reading I’ve firmly held Janet Frame as my favourite author and worked through most of her catalogue over time.

It’s with some embarrassment that I tell you that Penguin Books sent me a review copy of Gorse is Not People in August last year. And with some unashamed greediness that I admit to purposefully reading it slowly, savouring its stories and words so it might (almost) never end.

Gorse is Not People brings together 28 short stories by Janet Frame that span the length of her career. None of these stories has been published in a collection before – several are previously unpublished works in their own right and others have been published in well-known magazines such as The New Yorker.

This is the stuff of classic Frame. Rich layered writing with immediately imaginable characters – at times with a dose of fairytale and more than once with a desperate and deep sadness.
Readers of Faces in the Water will immediately identify with the grim prospects of Naida in the title story and the shabby below-par evening activity of a film showing when it’s too light to see the film – as  described in ‘A Night at the Opera.’

“So it was decided to show films in Park House itself, in the dayroom, after the more violently uncontrollable patients had been put to bed. There would be no screen. The walls, though gravy- and sausage-stained, and stuck with bits of apple pie, were of a light colour, but unfortunately there were no blinds, and the daylight at that time of year was not of a secretive nature but outspoken and honest, and preferred the company of the sky to being tucked down between hills. Our bedtime was half past six. How could we see a film in that light? ‘Your bedtime can be extended, an hour perhaps,’ the matron said graciously. The first film, it was decided would be shown in a week’s time, on a Tuesday.” [A Night at the Opera]

There’s a lot here too for fans of To the Is-land, An Angel at my Table and The Envoy from Mirror City as fuller stories and adaptations are made from pieces of these works – the story ‘Dot’ most memorably as Frame takes her childhood love for a local children’s newspaper columnist and gives it a sinister edge.

Stories like ‘The Wind Brother’ and ‘The Friday Night World’ have a fairytale quality to them – magical overtures that would appeal to readers of Grimms and Margaret Mahy. This truly is a book for all seasons and readers.

In addition to this books marvellous content, Penguin has done a wonderful job on the production of Gorse is Not People. The small, grey hardcover book with a Toss Wollaston jacket cover feels special – a book to be treasured, to be looked after and one that shouldn’t be rushed.

Five stars from me. A must for Frame fans as well as people looking for magical short stories to spark the imagination and create lasting memories of how great reading can really be.

Reviewed by Emma McCleary, Web Editor at Booksellers NZ

Gorse is Not People: New and Uncollected Stories
by Janet Frame
Published by Penguin Books
ISBN 9780143567707

Email digest: Monday 13 February 2012

Events
Tonight! True Stories Told Live fundraiser in Wellington! A cozy way to spend your evening.

Book news
Tony Fisk resigns from HarperCollins

Marilyn Duckworth to deliver the Janet Frame Memorial Lecture

Auckland Museum Library National Research Grant

Auckland Writers & Readers Festival announces Schools’ Programme

Twitter people – attention!
We’re doing something super cool soon with Guy Somerset and listener.co.nz – if you’re on Twitter follow @nzlbookclub to find out what. (This isn’t a Twitter-based project so you won’t miss out if you’re not on Twitter).

From around the internet
This bookshelf is shaped like a tree!

In time for Valentine’s: Top 5 rules for writing love letters

Opportunity knocks
Applications open for Ashton Wylie Charitable Trust Awards

Get loved up with our Valentine’s Day giveaway