Book Review: Johnson, by Dean Parker

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cv_johnsonWhen I was at school we were given a book to read for UE English. It was John Mulgan’s Man Alone. Published in 1939 and regarded as a classic of Kiwi Literature it was the story of Johnson, an ex-soldier who escapes the devastation of the Great Depression back in the Home Country by emigrating to New Zealand to start a new life. Arriving first in Auckland, he becomes entangled in the labour and watersider riots that are prevalent at the time. At one of these he is accused of assaulting a policeman and so he flees south to the central North Island to work as a farm hand. Whilst there he has an affair with his boss’s wife. Then there’s the accidental killing of his employer which turns him into a fugitive, on the run across rough hill country. By the novel’s end, he is contemplating leaving the country to fight in the Spanish Civil War.

For us students, we were taught to contemplate how the economic state of the country was juxtaposed with the antihero mythology of the novel. Johnson, with his existential presence, has no close bonds to others and is determined to live by his own means. It’s the birth of the great Kiwi Bloke. The strong silent type who goes bush at the first sign of trouble. He doesn’t vote, he runs away. He’s John Wayne ‘cowboy’ of Aotearoa. A man who answered only to God and himself. You see this archetypical character emerge again and again – most recently in Sam Neil’s portray the cantankerous ‘Hec’ in Taika Waititi’s Hunt For The Wilderpeople – itself, an interpretation of writings of another great bushman, Barry Crump. And there’s plenty more – Roger Donaldson has made a career out of these men – remember Vigil, Sleeping Dogs? Incidentally, the prominence of the novel and the nature of Johnson have led to the term “Man Alone”, which became a description of a particular archetype in New Zealand and Australian fiction. I believe Mulgan actually took the title for his novel from a line in Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not.

Still, what happened after Johnson left for Spain? Playwright Dean Parker attempts to fill us in. Our story begins with the cover, Lois White’s wonderful painting War Makers, rendered as almost ceramic figures, like the famous Lladró – strong, beautiful but ultimately fragile and brittle. Johnson is like one of those figurines. But he’s also a warrior. He fights the bloody battles in Spain, brawls with facists in London at the start of WWII, serves in Greece and along the way meets the cop that pursued him back in New Zealand in the high country. He’s also a guerrilla for a time in Crete, where he comes across an exhausted and deluded Kiwi officer called … Mulgan. It’s almost too much. How can he be part of so much history.

Something calls him back here and upon returning to our shores after the war he takes up his life of hard living. He mixes again with his old crowd and eventually joins the Communist Party. It is now 1951 and New Zealand is gripped by post-war class politics. The embers that will eventually fuel CK Stead’s Smith’s Dream have started warming. It’s the Labour movement versus the Employer and the Industrialists. It’s year of the great Watersider’s Lockout. More history to cram in.

It’s literally one event after the other. At times, it’s almost unbelievable how much living one man can do. But this is apparently typical of Parker’s writing. He enjoys putting his procrastinators right in the middle of a staunch political and historical narrative of class warfare. And there are plenty of regulars drifting in and out of each scene. Like Hillary, a green eyed left-wing lass who seems to pop up everywhere. Especially all over Europe. This all seems just a little too unlikely. I’ll admit, it’s a bit of a challenge but if you suspend your belief and your relish the ways she finds a way finally manages to tame Johnson then you can see this through to the natural conclusion. The Man Alone no longer, as it were. This is not so much in the typical romantic fashion but as a long-term calming interest. How that happens ends up being just a little bit fantastical but don’t let that put you off. Perhaps this is just a comment on the way we all grow and mature. We all have our wildness and as we age, we need security and chose to settle.

It’s always a bit of challenge when a writer of one particular takes on a different genre and platform. As a playwright Parker is familiar with the power of economical, clipped writing, with no additional waffle or floral prose to fill the pages. I appreciated this as it fits almost seamlessly with Mulgan’s original material. I also hope that Parker might one day consider this as a play. It would be a great accompaniment to Mason’s End of The Golden Weather. While that was a positive and nostalgic reflection of mid-century New Zealand, Johnson is more of a darker, proletariat interpretation. Almost like the other side of the coin. But both have a similar style, feel and language.

Okay, so it’s loaded with plenty of coincidences, the cinematic and theatrical implications are large. But best, it does justice and perhaps enhances that original old craggy story of Mulgan’s. It was a little odd going back to a book I was effectively forced to read. I wouldn’t have chosen it back in my school days. Mainly because, despite the potential of the plot, the writing was just too dry and tedious for a 16-year-old. Parker must have realised this and makes sure that his book rockets along. Part of the reason he can get away with smoke and mirrors so convincingly.

Reviewed by Tim Gruar

Johnson
by Dean Parker
Published bt Steele Roberts Aotearoa
ISBN 9780947493530

Book Review: Iceland, by Dominic Hoey

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cv_iceland.jpgDominic Hoey is a musician, poet and author based in Auckland, known by his stage name Tourette’s.

Here, in his debut novel, he follows the life of musician, Zlata. Zlata works days in an office where she awaits her sacking. The story follows her relationship with Hamish, who is a graffiti artist and drug dealer. Set in the streets of inner city Auckland, we follow the friendships of a group of drifters who struggle to survive and create their own rules and friendships. The concept of family is fringe to this group who lurch from party to fight to street to creative genius. Auckland is shown as a city struggling to find an identity. Where the suburbs are portrayed as deathly boring, it is the excitement and unpredictability of the city which is central to the story.

While Zlata works to secure a recording contract, Hamish is invited to show his art at a beautifully described opening. The conflict between artist, money and audience is well written. Violence is part of Zlata and Hamish’s relationship, and the question of ‘do I go or do I stay’ is explored.

While I struggled with the raw language and the hopeless situations, I understood that this is a world which I do not know. I felt myself living in the suburbs and casting judgement on these drifters and druggies. I suspect that this is a very real world which others will recognise.

This is not a cruisy read or a gentle excursion, but a raw, real read about what happens in the wide world.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Iceland
by Dominic Hoey
Published by Steele Roberts Aotearoa Ltd
ISBN 9780947493431

Book Review: Mulgan, by Noel Shepherd

Available now in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_mulganIn 1945, John Mulgan – soldier and author of the New Zealand novel Man Alone – committed suicide. The reasons behind his actions are still unknown today. But one of the many magical things about fiction is how it allows us to speculate. We can wonder about a different world, an alternative end. And this is what Noel Shepherd does in his novella Mulgan; he seeks to give John Mulgan an ending that will explain his death.

The novella begins with Mulgan’s life in Greece. There he meets Johns, an enigmatic figure with the same name as the main character in Mulgan’s own novel, Man Alone. Johns and Mulgan become partners in crime, working together through the war-stricken landscape of Greece. Shepherd has evidently done his research, and this shows through this text’s little details where he makes references to exact people and places. These details help bring precision to a world so far away from modern New Zealand.

The language of Mulgan was easy and enjoyable to read; Shepherd interpreted the last two years of Mulgan’s life with clarity. The story of Mulgan’s life in Greece was also interesting in itself. The constant pressure and threat of war overhung the whole novella and often there were short bursts of violent scenes, serving as a reminder that this danger could come at any moment. I got so caught up in the scenes of war that I forgot, from the beginning, that I knew what ending this story would lead to: Mulgan’s own suicide. The many snapshots of war developed Mulgan into the full figure of leadership that he is known for, but Shepherd made it clear that the horror of consistent violence leaves scars. When the all-revealing plot twist appeared, Shepherd stated it modestly, letting the reader’s own realisation wash over the text.

While reading the novella, I also felt a constant undercurrent of homesickness. Before the war, Mulgan studied the Classics and this was what brought him to Greece. There were moments when Mulgan described the ancient sites he saw: “crumbling pieces of the often conquered and sacked ancient Greek world”. However, being in Greece and in the thick of war also meant always being ready to leave. And the switches from place to place – Greece to Cairo, Cairo to Greece, but never home to New Zealand – was rendered so heartbreakingly in a single piece of dialogue from Mulgan: “I’m not sure who I am any more. I have no country, or maybe I have too many countries.”

After the revelation near the end of the text, I wanted the story to slow down; I wanted to understand Mulgan more. I soon realised that this could be my own flaw, too. The true cause for Mulgan’s death will always be a complex mystery. The speculation of Noel Shepherd’s novella is brilliant because, as Shepherd explicitly states in his introduction, the novella not claiming to be any sort of non-fiction. Instead, Shepherd shows an ending that you may have never considered, one that makes you pause and think. He invites you to wonder.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Mulgan
by Noel Shepherd
Steele Roberts Aotearoa
9780947493387

Book Review: Waybread & Flax, by Belinda Diepenheim

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cv_waybread_&_flaxSuspending disbelief is something that Belinda Diepenheim has achieved in this clever and intriguing collection, an extension of the manuscript that won her the Kathleen Grattan Award in 2013. Employing the perspectives of the plant world is an ambitious decision, but one that Belinda achieves beautifully.

Plant perception is not a new idea. Even Darwin himself, after investigating climbing plants with his son, concluded that plants, albeit without neurons, can “…receive impressions from the sense-organs…” Some of the scenarios in Waybread bring to mind the archetype of the blind prophet, such as the Bulgarian prophet, Baba Vanga and the idea of the silent observer to our chaos, who has vision, despite a lack of physical sight. Of course, this kind of outsider-looking-in narrative is great for exploring difficult subjects and giving the reader a taste of voyeurism without any added guilt. If offers us a fresh lens through which to see the world. All of this is tempered with a cheeky irreverence, such as the personification of horopito as a dangerous scarlet woman, the femme fatale of the plant world. ‘…hot through and through…”, Get too close, you might die…”

But it’s not all fun and games. Using the narrative device throughout the book enables Belinda to explore observations on colonisation, war and other difficult aspects of history, such as epidemics, through the eyes of the alien (the plant). The other benefit of using this device is that we also get to delve into the rich poetic soil of the botanical world, accompanied by gorgeous full colour plates of botanical illustrations. The title characters, waybread and flax are indicative of some of the subject matter – Waybread being the European import and flax, the symbol of New Zealand indigenous culture. The book is also divided into sections relating to ancient herbal cures. Cook and his imports and also Maori traditional medicines. It is no mistake that Belinda has chosen to focus on the healing and medicinal aspects of plants. The inference here is that, despite the brutality and trauma of our history, both colonisers and indigenous have an incredible potential for healing and co-habitation.

One thing you notice when making your way through the poems is that rain makes a regular appearance in nearly every poem. What could be more symbolic of healing the land? Again, it is woven throughout so as to seem inconsequential, but shows the deft hand of the poet in weaving it through the work. By the last poem, Solanum Laciniatum, Poroporo, we are left with the idea that just like that healing water that ebbs and seeps through “roots, stomata and shoots…”, we too are just passing through. Belinda comments that the next generation will still have:
…their hearts set on land of their own
a mass of dreams that has nothing
to do with reality.

Ultimately, the book ends on the note that it is enough to stand beside, to recognise our lack of ownership and the fleeting nature of our existence.

I stand beside, the tree ferns in the gully below,
the fickle piwakawaka flying
between bush lawyer and supplejack,
were never mine and I must pass
on from this place.
I will reply it was enough.

Reviewed by  Anna Forsyth

Waybread & Flax
by Belinda Diepenheim
Published by Steele Roberts Aotearoa
9780947493028