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
by Patrick Evans
Published by Victoria University Press