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The Best New Zealand Fiction:2 — excerpt

The [only] significant theme to emerge was that of events taking place not just here, but ‘over there’, somewhere else, as if New Zealanders no longer look inward, but rather see themselves as part of an international literary community. I was, for instance, blown away by Eirlys Hunter’s story Frozen which might loosely be termed science fiction, although I would describe it more as a fable for people abandoned by political will (of which the world has too many glaring examples right now). The story is set in Novaya Zemlya, real arctic islands at the opposite end of the world from New Zealand – as she describes it, a shadowy inversion of us. Chris Else sends dispatches from ‘Ventiak’ an imagined Pacific Island which is home to the dissolute Kit Wallace, as richly realized a character as ever strolled through our colonial past and, perhaps in spirit still roams the outposts, looking for his prey.

Norman Bilbrough, Karyn Hay, Kevin Ireland, Fiona Farrell and Gregory O’Brien all write in an overseas context. The first three stories are set in London, Bilbrough writing with sweet funniness about a would-be writer abroad, Hay in a voice that is dazzlingly profane and energetic, about a night gone wrong for an alcoholic at a literary party, and Ireland of a young man getting into deep water when he takes up with a surprising friend.

Fiona Farrell and Gregory O’Briens’ stories are influenced by France, Farrell in an ardent meditation on the hidden nature of caves, as the narrator sets out on a journey to one she has long hoped to explore, while Gregory O’Brien discovers the sensual and emotional satisfaction of travelling with those you love, in a piece that shatters the mould of story writing. Philip Temple’s story makes an imaginative leap into Berlin in the 1930s, and is not about New Zealand in any sense, but it is interesting to note the influence of the Berlin Writers Residency funded by Creative New Zealand. I am delighted to be able to include the first writing in the series by a Chinese writer, Tze Ming Mok which, told through the eyes of a young fruit seller in Auckland, offers some uncomfortable insights into life on both sides of the apple barrel. Pierre Furlan’s Moving Pictures , so satisfyingly translated from the French by Jean Anderson, on the one hand explores the inner life of an individual in Paris, but acts more as a metaphor for exploring definitions of home.

Witi Ihimaera and Paula Morris are Maori voices that speak with intensity from their point of belonging; Witi Ihimaera uses a take on J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello to deliver an excoriating political message which, as he does so well, is offered with panache and a humour that beguiles us temporarily into thinking that all is well until we are in too deep to retreat from what he is telling us. Paula Morris reaches back into the story of her great-great grandparents and their banishment from their ancestral home of Hauturu in 1896, to create an historical fiction with great effect.

Meanwhile, Charlotte Grimshaw’s characters stray into a dark and shady world populated largely by Maori in her story Opportunity. It pleases me to include a story that bristles with menace and has a mystery at its kernel, a detective story of sorts.

Women’s voices that are closer to the domestic front (in these stories at least) belong to Annamarie Jagose, Elizabeth Smither and Shonagh Koea, dealing as they do, respectively, with a family holiday one hot summer when there is all the sub-text in the world to seemingly ordinary events; a confrontation between a woman in a car and a group of aggressive men; and a woman pulled back to the place where her mother has lived and recently died. That the women in these stories remain closer to the central notion of home as place does not detract from their feistiness. In the latter two stories, each asserts themselves in ways that subvert the meaning of home, not dissimilar from Furlan’s concept. Jagose’s At Waimama Bay is told from a child’s perspective, and the story began life serialized in a newspaper. It is no accident that the title reflects Mansfield’s famous At the Bay, and the undercurrents in the seas around the island are as deep and fast-moving forces as in the story that inspired it.

I am struck all over again by the tenderness of men’s voices, and how far they have moved from the old stereotype of hard men of the back country, or disgruntled men returning to suburbia, which for so long typified writing about New Zealand men. William Brandt, David Eggleton, Vincent O’Sullivan, and Tony O’Brien, a writer whose work is new to me, all explored female perspectives, or the inner emotional lives of men in a way that suggests a deepening sense of understanding between genders. We seem to be looking at each other, and, of even more importance, listening to each other in refreshing new ways. The dilemma of who gets to look after the children when a mother goes out to work, is told with aching awareness by Brandt; Eggleton casts a wry eye over a young fashion designer’s first showing of her wares, O’Sullivan follows a woman meeting up with an old friend and finding that things may seem the same but time changes everything, and Tony O’Brien offers an exploration of the power of art, parallel lives, and the act of faith it takes to live from one moment to the next.

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