Book Review: Athens to Aotearoa, edited by Tatum Jeff

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_athens_to_aotearoa.jpgHow does New Zealand art engage with its classical inheritance? Not the second-nature parts we’re barely conscious of, but the vestigial, alien stuff – gods and gorgons and all that? Critics and artists offer their takes in the essays collected in Athens to Aotearoa.

It’s another cross-marketing success from VUP – craftily, the blurb leads with the glamour of “New Zealand’s most important artistic voices” and backends poor old dowdy criticism. It’s very accessible for an academic text; I pieced together my knowledge of the ancient world mostly from films starring pro wrestlers but I could understand most of it. The only exception was Tom Stevenson’s essay on Xena: Warrior Princess, which clearly wasn’t written for readers who were five when the show went off the air – was this show really so central to national identity? And how’s Xena pashing Hercules one episode and Julius Caesar the next? Baffling.

The artists’ essays are mostly theory-conscious enough to blur with the more academic stuff, but Witi Ihimaera’s collection-opener, “What If Cyclops Was Alive and Well and Living in a Cave in Invercargill?”, is breezy and wonderful. Other highlights are essays by Sharon Matthews and Geoffrey Miles on James K. Baxter, obviously an especially rich subject here, and Peter Whiteford’s incisive essay on Anna Seward’s Homer-invoking Elegy on Captain Cook. Quality’s high throughout. There are no bad essays here, although the final piece, Arlene Holmes-Henderson’s comparative study of Classics as a school subject in NZ and the UK, is the kind of graphs-and-stats thing a casual reader’s apt to flick through at speed.

As you’d expect from a collection originating in a conference theme, there’s no overall thesis advanced in these essays, and their eclecticism and often minute focus sometimes makes the classical world feel like a strangely niche subject for study, like “The Car in New Zealand Pop Music” or “Wigs in Poetry”. Where it did reach for a deeper point, I wasn’t always convinced. When classicist Simon Perris, in his engaging piece on Maui and Orpheus, writes of “Māori-classical-Pakeha Triculturalism”, it felt a bit like a mycologist arguing for the cultural centrality of the mushroom.

I also would’ve been keen to see something more evaluative. The really interesting questions Athens to Aotearoa raises, about the use of an imagined Greece to mediate Māori-Pakeha cultural dialogue, are just suggested instead of being really dug into and interrogated. There’s definitely room to argue that the implications are more ambiguous than the fairly rosy bicultural picture we get here; when we compare Maui to Orpheus, do we make the myth resonate deeper or culturally streamroll it, strip it of its weird particularity?

But it’s far from the worst thing for an academic text to suggest there’s a lot more to be written about the subject, even/especially one so seemingly niche. Athens to Aotearoa is a bit of a miscellany, but an intriguing, consistently engaging miscellany. It’s an obvious must-read for anyone interested in classics and New Zealand art, and the response essays probably will be too.

Reviewed by Joseph Barbon

Athens to Aotearoa
edited by Tatum Jeff
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561766

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Book Review: Hard Frost: Structures of Feeling in New Zealand Literature, 1908-1945, by John Newton

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_hard_frostThis is the first instalment of a projected three-part series on New Zealand literature. It’s a rather curious project, if John Newton’s preface is to be accepted. He claims that New Zealand literature, as he knew it, is complete and increasingly remote, or a “finite chapter.” Really? New Zealand literature no longer exists, apparently. What an odd premise. His justification for this is similar to that which is given for the apparent demise of the music industry: the young people don’t accept the old format.

In fact, this book is caught within a crisis in the academy. The heyday of New Zealand literature courses is over, and the demand is not there. Newton seems to feel this acutely, having written about the key ‘nationalist’ authors for some time, but without being able to interest his students. Giving up a teaching role, it is a rather odd enterprise to write three long books all about the crumbling edifice. And why should it be the academics who define what New Zealand literature is anyway? This is a bit like the American academic who decided the fall of communism signalled the ‘end of history’, except that was a piece of triumphalism rather than an acknowledgement of defeat.

This first book is not so much about the historical context becoming irrelevant. That is still to come, presumably. Hard Frost is actually based on the premise that New Zealand literature did not begin until Allen Curnow and the Caxton Press created it in the 1930s. The ‘hard frost’ comes from a Charles Brasch quote, in reference to a Curnow edited anthology, claiming that the chosen writers had “killed off weeds, and promoted sound growth,” at least in the South Island. This mythology is analogous to making the inhospitable mountainous country possible to inhabit: some sturdy blokes conquer the mountains and then see the promised land. The mountaineering was both figurative and literal, and it was also largely a masculine activity, as the later literary critics have pointed out.

A lot of the book is about this gender issue. Some great female writers were marginalised along the way; and a number of the blokes are limited by their own masculinity, and implicit homophobia. It has to be said that the issues of gender and sexual identity may be topical, but are not necessarily of great moment. Newton notes that the new interpretations involve a re-reading of Frank Sargeson, and the intervention of theoretical positions adopted from the international literature. Of course, Newton does this too, but also reverts to his own student background in choosing to resurrect an obscure part of Raymond Williams’ canon, the Welsh doyen of cultural studies. This is where he gets the phrase ‘structure of feeling’ from, but it’s more of an organising concept than academic theory.

The theme of the book, if one can abstract from all the derivative quoting from the literature, can be observed in the front cover. This involves a rather curious photo of three men trying to hold up some fossilised bones in a paddock, in North Canterbury, circa 1949. The caption on the back cover indicates that the men are archaeologists, including Jim Eyles and Roger Duff, who wrote a 1952 book on the discovery of Moa bones in Pyramid Valley. Newton does not mention the photo in the text, but does quote from Curnow’s famous poem ‘The Skeleton of the Great Moa in the Canterbury Museum, Christchurch’. The poem refers to the moa egg that was reconstructed, and the much repeated phrase about a child, born in a ‘marvellous year’, that “will learn the trick of standing upright here.” Newton has spent much of his academic career trying to explain to his students how this phrase launched the new, nuanced, form of nationalist writing by Curnow. But he now makes the point that Jim Eyles had made a more important discovery as a 13 year old at the Wairau Bar.

Newton now admits that the ‘nationalist position’ of Curnow was not really teachable anyway; and that he had already read it from a ‘post-colonial’ frame, in effect. That is fine as an admission of a literary critic, but Newton has an enhanced idea of his project as literary history. This goes beyond the role of writing a history of the key texts, to that of the inverse, i.e. writing history by way of the local literature and related texts. This is quite perplexing, apart from the contextual evidence he introduced about the archaeologists, and some of the photographic research. The key ones are in the chapter about gender and mountaineering, including the photo of Blanche Baughan trying to climb an ice face in 1916. She appears to be wearing completely impractical clothing, but the reproduction is poor, it has to be said, as are the other photos in the chapter, which seem too small.

The only other contextual material of historical significance involves the two key blokish poets in the nationalist frame, A.R.D. Fairburn and Denis Glover, as representative of settler manliness. Thus, Fairburn and Glover are both subjected to literary criticism and as blokes, being too partial to boozing and bravado, and not accepting their role as literary poets. However, there is a very interesting discussion of Glover, on a very personal reading, in which Newton makes a comparison between him and his own father. Despite this personal insight it just makes Glover more of a romantically tinged nationalist. But still a nationalist, just not on the same level as Allen Curnow.

As I write this review the 375th anniversary of the ‘discovery’ of New Zealand by Abel Tasman is being celebrated in Golden Bay. Gifts are being exchanged between Maori and Dutch dignitaries, rather than there being a clash of boats in the bay, as in 1642. Allen Curnow commemorated this in his ‘Landfall in Unknown Seas’, in true modernist style, which remains relevant. A combined and inter-weaved post-colonial history goes on, but is there now really no one to tell our islands’ story?

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Structures of Feeling in New Zealand Literature, 1908-1945
by John Newton
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561629

Book Review: Risking their Lives: New Zealand Abortion Stories 1900-1939, by Margaret Sparrow

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_risking_their_livesDame Margaret Sparrow, since qualifying as a doctor in the 1960s, has played a significant role in promoting the availability of reproductive health services in New Zealand. She openly states that it was thanks to her own ability to access contraceptives, and on one occasion a mail-order abortion drug, that she finished medical school at all. A prominent member of groups including Family Planning and the Abortion Law Reform Association of New Zealand, she still makes appearances at pro-choice protests. Recently named Public Health Association champion for 2017, Dame Margaret has been speaking at various events recently, continuing to promote her causes and occasionally startling younger women with frank discussions about masturbation.

She has lent her collection of historical contraceptive devices to be exhibited at Te Papa. She displays a golden speculum-shaped trophy in her living room. In short, Dame Margaret Sparrow is a bloody legend.

Risking their Lives is the third in a series recording abortion history in New Zealand. The earlier books covered the periods 1940 to 1980, and the 1800s. Compiled from coroner’s reports, newspaper reports and some biographical information about key figures who instigated change, the book intersperses historical context with the sad stories of many women whose circumstances led to their deaths from abortion-related causes. This book covers the section of time in between the previous two, during which increasing awareness of deaths from septic abortions led to changing political priorities about women’s health. Eventually.

As shown in the book, women who were pregnant and did not want to be were really between a rock and a hard place: strong social disapproval of childbearing out of wedlock led people to desperate remedies that could kill them. Married couples also feature in these stories; some women who died from abortions already had young children and felt they could not afford another.

Unsurprisingly, this is pretty grim reading. Margaret Sparrow acknowledged as much at the book launch, thanking Victoria University Press for committing to publishing her work despite knowing that abortion death is hardly bestseller material. As she read out one of the narratives, in which a woman on her deathbed was being quizzed by police about which drugs she and her friend might have procured, I suddenly remembered the words on a painting about illegal abortion from 1978: This woman died, I care. This, I thought, must be part of the purpose: to tell the stories of these 90-odd women, who didn’t need to die like that. To show, however belatedly, that someone cares.

After a setting out of historical context, the book divides its stories by the themes of medical causes of death, contraception, the law, then the professions of people most commonly caught up in abortion-related trials and scandals (doctors, nurses, chemists and others). I eventually found this layout slightly confusing, as with each new chapter the stories would start back in the early 1900s and progress on to the late 1930s. Given the evolution of social and medical perspectives being shown throughout the book, I might have found it easier to follow a more strictly chronological arrangement.

The chapter on contraception provided a surprise highlight. Following discussions of contraceptives in the media of the day (disapproving editorials on the one hand, euphemistic newspaper advertisements for “remedies” on the other) the chapter goes on to describe and contrast three pioneering women in the field of birth control: Marie Stopes in the UK, Margaret Sanger in the USA and Ettie Rout in New Zealand. They come across as fascinating characters: they knew each other and had at various times collaborated then strongly disagreed. They all seemed, in their own way, to be rather eccentric. But given the strength of conviction needed to keep pushing their work through, against prevailing social norms, a touch of unconventionality might have been helpful.

The most obvious audience for this book might be students of social and medical history. The book is however a stark reminder to any reader about how far we have come, and how far we have yet to go. It certainly made me grateful to be living with a female reproductive system now rather than 100 years ago. Abortion back then was dangerous, certainly, but naturally-occurring miscarriages could also kill women, and childbirth carried far more risks before modern medicine cut down the rates of fatal infections.

Reading these women’s stories may be an act of bearing witness: This woman died, I care. But we are also reminded that for any progress to be made, people like Margaret Sparrow needed to care. As she notes in her epilogue, we still have abortion in the crimes act, and while so much has improved for women’s health, there are still barriers. The connections between these kinds of stories and the present day need to be heard, because people need to keep on caring enough to keep pushing for change.

Reviewed by Rebecca Gray

Risking their Lives: New Zealand Abortion Stories 1900-1939
by Margaret Sparrow
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561636

Book Review: Ordinary Time, by Anna Livesey

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_ordinary_time‘Peter Singer believes we are all equally valuable and I believe him,’ Anna Livesey writes in the titular poem of her new collection, Ordinary Time. The poem is wonderfully casual, like a structured train of thought. ‘This means I should do more,’ Livesey continues. She then muses onwards and, wondering about the future, thinks, ‘One day there’ll be no book of mine left on the earth’.

These musings on the passage of time are what form the backdrop of Livesey’s collection. She specifically focuses on the time that passes with pregnancy, birth, and childhood. In doing so, she explores the world of parenthood. In the poem Speech and Comprehension, Livesey perfectly describes the innocence of new life that her baby has, the simple ‘infinitesimal knowledge of less than two weeks’. At this stage, parent and child speak in their own silent language.

However, the wonderful innocence of children also needs protection. In the poem Artificial Intelligence, Livesey portrays the worries that come with being a parent. She describes the earthquake drill procedure at Playcentre, which includes instructions to ‘fold over your child like a turtle and hold on’. When Livesey describes how the parents ‘give ourselves up, bend-bridge-wise / over small hearts that judder and fear’, Livesey highlights a vivid image. Each parent acts as both a physical and metaphorical buffer to the world’s dangers. In this way, Livesey perfectly describes both the care and worry that comes with parenthood. She softly ends the poem with a sentence that is simple, yet carries mountains of emotion: ‘One month post-partum, I find, you’ll cry at anything’.

Livesey’s wonder at the growth of her children also carries its own innocence. In the poem Your Mind Like a Pearl, Livesey ponders how she and her child were once together, telling her child that ‘before you were born, you, coalescent, bathed inside me’. Now the two are separate entities, parent and child both carrying their own thoughts within their own bodies. As her child thinks and moves, Livesey addresses her child and states how she can see ‘the physical presence of your mind, working’. Through her observations, Livesey herself seems struck with awe as well.

The bond between parent and child is also a relationship that plays out through Livesey and her own mother. Her mother suffers from time; Livesey brings out the image of her mother’s hands as she last saw her, in ‘the claw-twists of dementia’. She also describes her mother’s hands as they used to be when she was younger, the hands that taught her how to sew as well as the hands that held her close.

It seems that ordinary time has a firm grasp on those both in youth and in older age. Livesey’s own awe as her child grows reveals how inspiring this passage of time can be, even if it is not quite so comforting on the other side of the spectrum. And even if time rolls onwards and all the books we write are to disappear, as Livesey states at the end of her first poem, ‘Having started as a poet I suppose any contribution is a positive mark on the ledger’.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Ordinary Time
by Anna Livesey
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561605

 

Book Review: Quarrels with himself: Essays on James K. Baxter as prose writer, edited by Geoffrey Miles and Peter Whiteford

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cv_quarrels_with_himselfWe’ll mythologise anyone in this country, rate anything a holy relic – how many thousands of words spent on Sargeson’s house? How many of Mansfield’s receipts, hair tufts, gnawed pencils have been ziplocked, catalogued, glossily photographed? The lit scenesters of 2067 will probably be reading paeans to Hera Lindsay-Bird’s Hyundai, crowding around tables at the archives for a look at Witi Ihimaera’s toenail clippers. If some notable tried to sate us with taxidermy, we’d bemoan the lost chance to inspect the artist’s guts and then prop the mummy up in the birthplace, pensive-posed if they were sensitive, wrestling a stag if they were Crumpishly butch.

Unusually, we collect James K. Baxter’s words and not his skin flakes, but we often treat them about the same – Baxter’s actual work becomes another artefact, interesting just for its relationship to his life and image. Quarrels with Himself is the first major study of Baxter’s prose, which prior to the landmark release of his Complete Prose in 2015 had been generally dismissed even by Baxter himself as far lesser stuff than his poetry, placing it in an interesting position of establishing a new critical precedent for the author; is Baxter’s prose of interest outside of how it illuminates and complicates the Baxter myth? Are these notable works in themselves?

Quarrels answers with a resounding ‘vaguely’. As editor Geoffrey Miles puts it, Baxter ‘is not only one of New Zealand’s great poets, but also a prose writer of some distinction’, which isn’t as faint a piece of praise as it sounds. We’d still talk about Baxter if all we had to judge him on were works like his idiosyncratic essays on New Zealand poetry and the cosily derivative lyrical novella Horse. However, most of the essays here are focused less on close analysis of Baxter’s prose works in isolation than in how they ‘uncover how much more complicated Baxter is than his popular stereotype’ – that is, what they tell us about Baxter the poet.

As an academic text, Quarrels is obviously essential for Baxter scholarship. If, as a pioneering critical work, it doesn’t demonstrate that its subject calls for much future study, that’s mostly because it feels pretty comprehensive, even definitive. It’s not likely to be superseded as the book about Baxter’s prose for decades, if ever. But there’s a conspicuous absence, as Miles acknowledges, of an essay on Baxter’s complicated relationship with Māori culture, especially disappointing given the missed opportunity to engage with Baxter a little less reverently. The collection steers clear of hagiography, but could steer clearer; contributors often allude to the flaws in Baxter’s work (and personality) but don’t really dig into them, generally assuming the reader’s already hip to Baxter’s warts.

More interesting is the question of Quarrels’ crossover potential, since Baxter’s an ideal subject to appeal to both an academic and popular audience. Robert Christgau called Dylanology ‘the thinking man’s philately’, a quip that applies just as well to fellow rebel-cum-institution Baxter, who rewards obsessives the same way. Brilliant epigrams and pieces of imagery are buried in obscure speeches and essays, and instead of having a consensus major period, the phases of his career lend themselves to ranking in a way both non-linear and subjective – half the fun of reading him is getting to debate the relative merit of Baxter the aesthete, Baxter the Catholic, Baxter the satirist, Baxter in Dunedin, Baxter in Jerusalem.

Fortunately for the amateur Baxterologist, Quarrels isn’t a pedantic academic text but a pretty good read. Most of these essays are in an enjoyable, accessible, relatively jargon-free style, and they cover an interesting range of topics. Highlights include Peter Whiteford’s piece on Baxter’s social voice and Janet Wilson’s study of Baxter’s autobiographical writing, which has some of the best in-depth commentary on Baxter’s prose. John Davidson’s essay on Baxter and academia is a delight and my definite favourite; his style is clear and charming, and he doesn’t try to resolve Baxter’s academic ambivalence into some phony synthesis, opting instead for sly complicity with Baxter’s contradictory dependence on and healthy contempt for the academy.

Some of the essays are a bit stiff, though. Sharon Baxter’s essay ‘Women are All Mothers to Him’ contains the best analysis of Baxter’s fiction in the book, but it has some undergraduate-y connective tissue (‘in what follows, I focus on’, ‘James K. Baxter’s short fiction – by which I mean…’) that an edit could’ve fixed. There’s a couple outright drags. Kristine Moffat’s essay on Baxter and Puritanism is probably insightful but it’s pretty dry stuff. Nicholas Wright’s essay ‘The Incarnational Formalist’ makes a few decent points, but it’s written in ultra-turgid lit-theory style, simultaneously impenetrable and trite– who would read an essay that starts with ‘What does it mean to know how or why one writes and reads as one does?’ unless they had to review it? Check it out:

‘As I’ve suggested, pursued to the ends of its paradoxical or unmethodical method, formalism must surrender itself once again in that ritual of self-refusal or disavowal, which, for the formalist, becomes evidence they have discovered the vessel of the ineffable – that source of reverence to which the critical clerisy were devoted.’

Baxter would spin if he knew this stuff was being written about him, not to mention Denis Dutton. Still, it’s the exception in a generally highly readable collection.

Quarrels with Himself would be a pretty weird buy for someone who isn’t already a Baxter enthusiast, but it’ll satisfy anyone who’d want to read it. This study of Baxter’s second-tier work might not uncover hidden depths so much as elaborate on the tensions and contradictions in the myth we already knew, but it does it very well, and besides, it’s just fun to talk about him. This is more or less a compulsory companion for those who’ve committed to Baxter’s Complete Prose, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone Baxter-mad enough to have even considered it.

Reviewed by Joseph Barbon

Quarrels with himself: Essays on James K. Baxter as prose writer
edited by Geoffrey Miles and Peter Whiteford
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561711

Book Review: Baby, by Annaleese Jochems

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_hires_babyWow, what an amazing talent this young woman is. At all of 23 years of age, there is an urgency and energy to Annaleese Jochems’ writing. Her insight into how social media, celebrity culture, the culture of ‘me’, and how the resultant obsession with self has manipulated her generation of young people is spectacular. The result is a monster of a young woman, the 21-year-old Cynthia, whose life and existence is completely dominated by her dangerously self absorbed, meaningless and boring existence.

This novel is well and truly a modern urban cautionary fable, about that privileged and over indulged generation us oldies like to call entitled, how their perception of self is so out of whack, and the consequences when it all goes wrong. A total nut job. I have already admitted I am the wrong demographic for this novel, even though I get what is going on (I think), but my 20 year old daughter, clearly of the same demographic as Cynthia and the author thought the book way too weird to continue reading. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it is weird, but it is certainly disturbing.

Cynthia has a life of nothing. She has been to university, although it is not clear if she completed her degree or dropped out. She has no job, lives at her father’s home, a man who appears to be both physically and emotionally absent, but he does have a great bank balance, spends all her time on her phone, watching movies, playing with her dog Snot-head (who calls their dog such a name?) and doing yoga. Anahera is the yoga instructor, a slightly older woman, with whom Cynthia becomes obsessed. When Anahera turns up on her doorstep claiming she has left her husband, the madness begins. After raiding her father’s bank account, they drive off to Paihia, where absurdly, they purchase a boat called Baby, living on it just off the shore of Paihia beach.

Talk about cabin fever. As the days pass, and with no fixed plan of action, they begin to run out of money, Snot-head does not take well to marine life, Anahera remains disturbingly elusive, wanting to spend all her time swimming from the boat to an off shore island. Their random existence leads them to random encounters with others, none of which end well, Cynthia increasingly out of touch with reality, out of control with her emotions and actions.

So a bizarre plot with not a single likeable or even relatable character. All using each other for their own ends, the lines of communication and connection are constantly twisted and warped. The novel is narrated entirely from Cynthia’s self-absorbed perspective, so cleverly we get to find out very little about the other characters and what is going on in their minds with the strange set up they find themselves in.

I wouldn’t say I enjoyed this book, some very strange and disturbing stuff goes on. But as an insight into the over stimulated mind of a young person it is extraordinary. As is the quality of the writing, the low level tension held through out, beginning with the first line  “Cynthia can understand how Anahera feels just by looking at her body.”, to the last paragraph  “For now, she shifts her head from one side to the other, resting it. Time passes and the trees are silent. A small winged bug lands on her wrist then flies away. She doesn’t notice.” This is an amazing new voice in NZ writing, we should treasure and nurture her, she will go onto great things.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

Baby
by Annaleese Jochems
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561667

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