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

Reviews of the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards finalists

Ockham_Book_Awards_lo#26E84 (2)The finalists in the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards have now been announced, giving readers 16 fine books to take a second look at, and consider among the best New Zealand books ever produced. The judges had an unenviable task, with 18 months worth of submissions considered, and of course they haven’t chosen everybody’s favourite books (wherefore no The Chimes?) , but it is a pretty fine list nonetheless.

Click the title you are interested in below to read a review, either on our blog, or if we haven’t yet had it reviewed, in another extremely reputable place.

Acorn Foundation Literary Award (Fiction) 

Unity_poetry_fiction

Image from Unity Books Wellington @unitybookswgtn

The Back of His Head, by Patrick Evans (Victoria University Press)
Chappy, by Patricia Grace (Penguin Random House)
Coming Rain, by Stephen Daisley (Text Publishing)
The Invisible Mile, by David Coventry (Victoria University Press)

Poetry
How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes, by Chris Tse (Auckland University Press)
The Night We Ate the Baby, by Tim Upperton (Haunui Press)
Song of the Ghost in the Machine, by Roger Horrocks (Victoria University Press)
The Conch Trumpet, by David Eggleton (Otago University Press)

General Non-Fiction

Unity_non-fiction

Image from Unity Books Wellington @unitybookswgtn

Maurice Gee: Life and Work, by Rachel Barrowman (Victoria University Press)
The Villa at the Edge of the Empire: One Hundred Ways to Read a City, by Fiona Farrell (Penguin Random House)
Māori Boy: A Memoir of Childhood, by Witi Ihimaera (Penguin Random House)
Lost and Gone Away, by Lynn Jenner (Auckland University Press)

Illustrated Non-Fiction
Te Ara Puoro: A Journey into the World of Māori Music, by Richard Nunns (Potton and Burton)
New Zealand Photography Collected, by Athol McCredie (Te Papa Press)
Tangata Whenua: An Illustrated History, by Atholl Anderson, Judith Binney, Aroha Harris (Bridget Williams Books)
Real Modern: Everyday New Zealand in the 1950s and 1960s, by Bronwyn Labrum (Te Papa Press)

Enjoy these wonderful New Zealand books and share them far and wide.

The Ockham New Zealand Book Awards are supported by the Ockham Foundation, the Acorn Foundation, Creative New Zealand and Book Tokens Ltd. You can find out who the judges are here. The winners (including of the four Best First Book Awards) will be announced at a ceremony on Tuesday May 10 2016, held as the opening night event of the Auckland Writers Festival.

The awards ceremony is open to the public for the first time. Tickets to the event can be purchased via Ticketmaster once festival bookings open on Friday 18 March. Winners of the Acorn Foundation Literary Award, for fiction, win $50,000. Winners of the other three category awards each receive $10,000, the Māori Language award $10,000, and each of the winners of the three Best First Book awards, $2,500.

by Sarah Forster, Web Editor

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