Saturday, February 13, 2010

A week for sitting in the sun and reading

I read two novels with a New Zealand connection this week:
BREAKING THE CLOUDS by Margaret Blake (pub Robert Hale 2008)
ISBN 978-0 -090-8562-1
is set mostly in a far north New Zealand town where an English couple have settled, he works as a solicitor in Auckland, she has walked into the Deputy Principal’s job at the local school. The novel’s theme is the break up of their marriage. As the story continues I found myself thinking,
“Hold on, has Margaret Blake lived in New Zealand or did she skim through ‘Lonely Planet’ for details?”
I do not make a habit of nit picking when I read but nits in this book kept jumping off the page and hitting me; repeated references to ‘North Island’ and ‘South Island’ I have never heard either referred to without the definite article. Ninety Mile Beach has changed coasts, in ‘Breaking the Clouds’ it edges the Pacific Ocean, not the Tasman Sea.
The characters could have been interesting; two intelligent, middle class ‘poms’; a distant cousin destined to be the villain; an enigmatic, rich Maori, who looks like John Tamihere, his kind sister who makes soup and scones, but they all speak with the same middle class idiom and sentence structure. By page 116 whoever borrowed the book before me had become so fed up with the grammatical errors in the narrative they took to underlining them in pencil; ‘that’ for ‘who’ ‘’lessoned’ for ‘lessened’ etc.
That old maxim, ‘show don’t tell’ from Creative Writing 101 has been ignored. Driving into Auckland from the North the protagonist sees nothing that distinguishes Auckland from Liverpool, or Boston or Athens. As for teaching we learn nothing of how Bron interacts with pupils and staff. When Job takes her to a party and she sings we don’t know what song or how she sounds to herself. Worse; when they go to dinner at Mangonui, renowned for its fish and chips, there is absolutely no description of the meal, did they buy them wrapped in newsprint, or eat them from a plate? Did they squeeze fresh lime over them? How crisp was the batter? How flaky was the fish? Nothing.
The narrative bones of the story are there, but the characters don’t react to places or people so that we see their thoughts. I ‘googled’ Margaret Blake.
She has written several historical romances, perhaps she was uncomfortable with the demands of a different genre, but ‘Breaking the Clouds’ did not impress me.
On the other hand PLINY’S WARNING by Anna Maria Nicholson (Harper Collins 2009) did. Nicholson is a journalist with ABC Australia; she has researched carefully and raised deep scientific issues. Frances Nelson is a vulcanologist, on an International team assessing the dangers of Mt Vesuvius. We meet her on a dive in the Mediterranean’ ‘Her calf muscles tighten as she kicks her flippers and dives deeper.’ We are sharing the experience with her from the first sentence, through the encounter with a moray eel, to the discovery of mosaic tiles from a drowned Roman villa.
The characters are real, not because of how they dress but from the descriptions of what they do, and Nicholson has chosen some truly dramatic locales. We hear the boiling pools and the echo of fragile pathways on White Island. We share the last moments of a family trapped in Pompeii. We feel the rage and despair of a gifted young ‘cellist dying of cancer in Naples.
Nicholson has wisely decided to tell the story in the present tense, apart from flashbacks to New Zealand the story unfolds like a screen play, it adds to the suspense. Frances Nelson lives in a working class apartment in Naples. She interacts with her neighbours, through them we learn about the effects of municipal corruption upon ordinary lives; the streets clogged with rubbish, shoddy buildings which collapse in earthquakes, how the gangsters react to protest. The author has taken two dramatic themes, one political, the other scientific, and tied them together with a story about real characters, truly serious story telling.

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