Monday, April 14, 2008

A reject review

I was asked to review Alice Tawhai's book for a local literary journal - it didn't quite meet their taste in reviews (maybe because I talk about the editors' lack of enthusiasm for Luminous or maybe it just wasn't up to scratch) and so I publish it here:

Alice Tawhai, Luminous

Wellington: Huia Publishers, 2007. ISBN: 978-1-86969-293-3 RRP $35.00

Reviewed by Skyler

Reviewing this book was daunting for me. I will explain: I am surrounded by people who are hardened practitioners in the art of writing and this is my first published review. I was also given this book because no one else was particularly interested in reviewing it; I think the conversation went, “want to review this book? I’m sure you’d be more sympathetic than I would be. It’s pretty overwritten and clichéd”. Well, where do you go from there?

Luminous is Alice Tawhai’s second collection of short stories. Her first collection Festival of Miracles, also published by Huia, was named as one of The Listener’s best books for 2005. Tawhai’s fascination with colour is notable throughout Luminous. In all her stories colour, light and contrast are described sensuously and images are repeated. I was intrigued to read recently that Tawhai’s interests include photography and art, and that travel to India (a country saturated by colour and contrast) is high on her wish list for the future.

‘Butterflies and Moths’ is a story about Glory, a middle-aged woman reflecting back on her life. She is trying to find herself again, as an individual apart from her children and husband. She believes she was robbed of opportunity and choice when she was young. Glory feels stifled by motherhood and marriage, but she finds an escape in nature:

She came to a field full of thistles topped with dark-pink flowers. A million-shower of white cabbage butterflies hung above them, dislodging each other; floating like fragments of torn-up love letters thrown into the air. Oh, thought Glory. The world is beautiful, and I’m swimming in it…She waded through the fields, Swedes now, with fat, white tops sticking out above the stony soil, inviting her to trip over them in her steel-capped boots. White butterflies still fluttered around her like confetti, although there were fewer of them now.

While digging for fossils Glory discovers a baby’s skeleton. The discovery causes Glory to remember a time when she felt like killing her own baby. Here is the final paragraph of ‘Buterflies and Moths’:

It was the fifth time since Glory had gone to bed, and it had been going on night after night. ‘Shut the bloody baby up!’ Charlie had shouted. ‘I need some sleep! I’ve got work in the morning!’ And Glory had picked Marama up and shaken her hard, just to try and make her stop. But she had only cried louder. And Glory quite clearly remembered how there, in the dimness, she had wished her own baby dead.

But I thought that Tawhai’s prose undermined Glory’s stark story. It felt like Tawhai was trying too hard, using too many adjectives. A better story is ‘The Golden Lotus’, which is told through the eyes of Ming, a young girl working in her family’s restaurant. It is set during one evening in the restaurant and follows the people there and the conversations Ming overhears:

Today, the birch tree outside in the car park was dropping golden leaves all over the asphalt, and it made Ming think of the firework called Golden Rain which spat gold sparks into the Indian ink of the night…She showed a lady in dark shorts and bright pink gumboots, fluorescent against her brown legs, to a table. It was Maori families who came in for the buffet, an all-you-can-eat special, including coffee and dessert.

In this story Tawhai sets the scene expertly: her description of the Chinese restaurant and its patrons transported me to my teenage years in West Auckland. ‘The Golden Lotus’ could easily do a thriving business in Ranui or Westgate:

The kids were all flocking around the tank of fish in the centre of the room. It was filled with carp, and Ming knew that there were eight orange ones for good luck, and one black one to absorb bad luck if it came. The water was deep green, and it had somehow managed to trap sunlight from the outside world within its depths. The fish swam to the side of the glass, nuzzling it with their lips where the children touched it with their fingers. Fish kisses.

‘You kids get over here, or you’ll miss out,’ said one of the women. A fat, golden kitten on the counter waved a mechanical paw up and down near to where they were all helping themselves. One of its big round Western cat eyes was winking above its fat pussy-cat checks. Its eyelids and claws were stained red and green over gold. ‘It looks like a bloody transvestite!’ said one of the men, and got a laugh from the other adults. Ming wondered what he was talking about. Working in the restaurant she heard a lot of things that she didn’t understand.

My parents moved our family to West Auckland when I was fifteen; at the time I thought they had a made a very uncool decision. With the sharp tongue of a fifteen year-old I used to poke fun at the “Westies” who sported mullets, wore tight black jeans and scruffy T-shirts advertising Jack Daniels, listened to Metallica, watched rugby league, and drank Lion Red. It was all very alien to the teenager used to hanging out in “trendy" central Auckland suburbs. After spending the best part of my youth in “Westieland” I now embrace my own ‘Westiness’ (minus the outer trappings - though I do own some black jeans and have been told I have a semi-mullet!). For me, then, ‘The Golden Lotus’ made for interesting reading. Its setting was readily recognisable, but it also made me feel a little uncomfortable. The tone of ‘The Golden Lotus’ is light but its theme is dark:

My cousin’s having trouble with her one already. Her daughter’s only eleven years old, and she’s started sleeping with married men…If that was my kid, I’d boot her arse. I told my cousin, “You’ve spoilt that girl.” They let her do anything she wants. Wearing too much lipstick, running off while they’re out, smoking down by the shops. “Send her to me,” I said. “If she tries going out anywhere to get up to that sort of shit, I’ll give her the bash, and that’ll teach her. It won’t take her long to learn!”

Tawhai gives us a punch line at the end of her story:

High above her head a golden lotus had been painted onto a bright red background. Its petals had been carefully parted to show the central heart of the flower. And it was perfect and whole and untouched, as all little girls should be.

Many of Tawhai’s stories have themes of sex and self-loathing: they are full of secrets, loneliness and alienation. The best of them avoid sentimentality and feature a sensuous but controlled language. Luminous is a perfect title for Tawhai’s book. Her stories are vivid snapshots of ordinary lives; reading them one after the other is like using a Victorian stereoptic card viewer. My literary friends would be foolish to totally shun this book. Tawhai’s writing borders on the clichéd but it has moments of honesty and beauty. I look forward to seeing how she matures as a writer.


Blogger Richard said...

The stories sound good. Maps and Comrade Titus probably think it is not "cutting edge (or surreal or Gothic or cynical) enough -but not everything can be "challenging" .. there is room for just "good stories" or great stories..I love short stories of all kinds.

There are at least 2 Projects in literature

- the kind of writing of Tawhai which could become great writing in its own right (or it could just downgrade to drivel!)

- the kind of stuff say Doonald Bartheleme or Borges or even Peter Carey of (his first book - a shortstory collection - "The Fat Man in History" or some of the stuff in Morrisey's "The New Fiction")

All are valid in their own way but all have got 'do well' inside their own sub genre -I move from the sometiesm great stories of Owen Marshall (Titus disagrees but he has done some great work) to Mansfield, Sargeson, Chekov and then stuff like Bartheleme's "Interrogation of a Black Square" in which he interviews a black square (you see it depicted) and so on - the normative to varying degress of stimulating madness!!

But sometimes there is room for the insghtful stuff.

I can understand a parent sometimes wanting to kill a child - the noise of a baby crying is or can be terrible.

If Kahui killed his baby twins I can understand it. Sometimes for many reasons we lose control or are driven beyond normal reason (by noise or whatever) - I have been there...

So the stories sound very insightful - nothing wrong with too many adjectives...

Good review.

12:50 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

whose that ugly bastard? get the moron off here. talking about killing an books

dis iz a politakal sight man!!
blaaah!! poofter

12:53 am  
Blogger Skyler said...

Maps probably doesn't have an opinion about Tawhai's book as he hasn't read it yet but my impression is that he likes straight forward writing these day - so I'm sure Tawhai's genre he would appreciate, though he might find the language a bit cheesy. I think he thought my review was ok and liked all the personal references that grounded it.

8:04 am  
Blogger Richard said...

I think Maps is still not too happy about "wet" writing and likes some of the "strange stuff" - straightforward rings alarm bells!!

One of Charles Bernstein's essays in his book "A Poetics" talks of dergrees of "absorption" which is a useful idea when studying literature.

One of the weaknesses of a lot of writing in NZ v the US is the lack of intense theory (that comes via the French and so on - via the constructivists or philosphers such as Barthes and post structuralists etc - Barthes and Derrida also came to be interested in that ) With out this theory (or similar ideas) we would have no Jack Ross for example (or perhaps a less interesting Dr. Jack Ross) - I am not so directly influenced by post modernism...perhaps indirectly... for me there are many possible styles and approaches - a lot of writing that is exonerated is really quite weak in NZ (and elsewhere) to this extent that the language poets for example contributed as did the Futurists, the Dadaists, the Oulippo guys (NZ's Richard von Sturmer and Robbe-Grillet, Borges, Cortazar, Calvino and Perec in that sort of domain or demense) - and many long as one doesn't get too bogged down in these theories or ideas - I don't define myself into simplistic categories - for example as Maoist or Marxist - life to feel I occupy a mood governed phemomenological space with a nod to Anarchism and a dash of good old random destructiveness and madness thrown in (the odd bomb lobbed) - Marinetti is to be admired in medium doses - sometimes - a pinch of Goon Showism and some Monty Pythonism ("Who hasn't burnt down a public building, I know I have!") - life is too short for categorical and fixed ideas of the sort that have driven Alan Lonely Loney looney: to the extent he is self-exiled, in Australia "a pretty bloody place to be!", sitting sweating alone in a bare room chanting mantras and muttering madly top himself all day; bitter; attacking the inestimable and ubiquitous Dr Jack Ross (his Moriaty of NZ lit) and NZ writing in general... as well as politics and deep lit is there is the small matter of enjoying the pleasures of being alive!!

Just read an interesting review of Flann O'Brien (kind of proto modernist to post modernist but had a great sense of humour as did Joyce and Beckett) via Powells's Books - that is his was his pseudonym - I love short stories e.g one of my favourites is Joyce Carol Oates..some of her short stories were made into films. 'Belfleur' by her is one of my favourite novels...there are all sorts...

Alice Tawhai sounds interesting.

1:34 am  
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