Who’s your favourite New Zealand author? If you can’t think of anybody other than Derryn Hinch or Katherine Mansfield, then read on; WA author Tracy Farr is here to guide us to some modern literary treasures from across the Tasman. Tracy has spent much of the past two decades in New Zealand, and has come to know and love many of its talented authors. She shares some of her finds with us, along with a synopsis of her own new novel, The Life And Loves of Lena Gaunt.
It’s been more than 20 years since I left Perth, and for most of that time I’ve been living in New Zealand. Over the years, when I’ve come home and spent time in good bookshops, I’ve observed that books by New Zealand writers are thin on the shelves – or not there at all! It works the other way too – novels by Australian authors can be hard to find in even the best bookshops in Wellington, where I live. So, here’s a start, Perth: here are books I’ve been reading lately by some of my favourite New Zealand writers. Ask your local bookshop or library to get them in for you, if they don’t have them in stock; or they’re all available to buy online as e-books or treebooks.
Stephanie Johnson’s latest novel, The Writing Class (Vintage, 2013), wears its structure on its sleeve. This very meta novel is all about the art and craft of writing, about the novel as a form, and about fiction and its powers of redemption and healing, illusion and delusion. The central character, Merle, “who once showed great promise and now teaches Creative Writing”, her sickness beneficiary husband Bren, and their slightly mysterious lodger Jurgen share the novel’s main stage with Merle’s younger colleague, Gareth, whose award-winning first novel, Root, may – he fears – be his last. Of Merle and Gareth’s students – nicely realised minor characters in the novel – the focus is on Jacinta (and her husband, Hermann).
The classroom scenes can be read as installments in a writing class – as a reader, you’ll learn something about writing from this book – and they feel a little didactic in places. But that doesn’t detract; in fact, it helps the reader feel part of Merle’s class, immersed in it. The novel could’ve been a massive clunker, laboring the point of its clever conceit, turning on itself as a result. But in Stephanie Johnson’s very safe hands – with her assured touch, and her humour – it’s a delight. Stephanie has a swag of novels and short stories under her belt, and has taught Creative Writing for many years (currently at AUT University in Auckland).
Emily Perkins’ fourth novel, The Forrests (Bloomsbury, 2012), is the story of the eponymous Forrest family. It spans the life of the family’s middle child, Dorothy, from childhood (sometime around the middle of the twentieth century) onwards. Each chapter skips a beat – sometimes days, more often years – from the chapter preceding it. Perkins knows her readers are up to the challenge, and she trusts us to fill in the gaps, engaging us fully in the story of Dorothy, her older sister Evelyn, their not-quite-foster brother Daniel, and the oddities of their family’s connections, relationships and fortunes.
The novel is set in and around a recognisable Auckland, but only loosely situated in a specific time; Perkins leaves hints – snippets of music, women’s groups and communes, the appearance of cellphones and e-readers, global financial crisis – to indicate timeframes. This loose connection with time fits the novel’s lovely fluid feel; Dorothy lives in the moment, her focus in on herself and those around her rather than outwards to the big wide world. I loved Emily Perkins’ style, her delicious words, her light and lovely humour, her characters’ interactions, and every minute of the Forrests’ romp (and stumble) through life.
There were a number of novels about music and musicians published over the last few years that I avoided reading when they first came out, not because I didn’t want to read them, but because I was wary of reading them while I was writing and editing my own novel about music, and musicians. Now that my novel is finished, and about to make its way in the world, I’ve started catching up on those other musical novels.
Sarah Quigley’s fourth novel, The Conductor (Vintage, 2011), is one of these, and it has music at its heart. Quigley is a New Zealand writer who has lived in Berlin since 2000. Weaving together fictionalised and real characters and events, the novel convincingly – beautifully – shows Dmitri Shostakovich composing his seventh symphony as a direct response to the German invasion of Leningrad in 1941. Point of view shifts from Shostakovich to his friends Nikolai and Sollertinsky, to Nikolai’s daughter Sonya – at nine, a prodigy on the cello – and a string of musicians and other minor characters, but starts and ends with Karl Eliasberg, the second-rate conductor of Leningrad’s second-string orchestra, left behind in the besieged city, rehearsing Shostakovich’s new Leningrad Symphony. Music drives (compels) the novel’s characters through the harshness of that winter, to survive the horror and hunger and transformation of the city and its people. We hear the war through Shostakovich’s ears, watching and listening as he forms the sounds around him into a musical score:
“Shostakovich stopped listening to their words and heard the counterpoint in their voices. Was it two violins, or a violin and viola? The first line soared away and fell back: a yearning for distance, a desire for intimacy, until, for one perfect second, both strands became one.”
This isn’t so much a novel about war, as a novel about art, and the strength of the human desire to create; about taking control in an uncontrollable world.
My debut novel, The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt (Fremantle Press, 2013), is also woven through with music. Lena Gaunt – musician, octogenarian, junkie – is Music’s Most Modern Musician; theremin player of legend. The theremin was the first electronic musical instrument, invented in the 1920s. To play it, your hands hover close to the theremin, but never touch it.
“Music from a theremin can sound like a human voice, or an electronic scream; like an alien spaceship, or the low moan of a cello. The best players can tease all of these sounds from the wood and wire and electricity that is a theremin. And I am the best player – after all these years, old woman that I am, not bettered. I, Lena Gaunt, am a legend.”
The story of Lena’s life begins in Singapore and Malacca early in the twentieth century, and ends in her eighties, in Cottesloe, when filmmaker Mo Patterson approaches her to make a film about her life and music. While the novel follows Lena in her travels – to Malacca, Sydney, New Zealand, Europe, New York – like Lena it has Cottesloe Beach as its geographical centre, its home, the place it comes back to again and again. As Mo and Lena negotiate and navigate the making of the film, Lena’s story unfolds in a novel that, at its heart, is about how we’re all shaped by love, loss, and the stories we tell (and don’t tell). Through it all, Lena – like Shostakovich in besieged Leningrad – observes and makes sense of the world through sound, and music.