Through the Lonesome Dark by Paddy Richardson (Upstart Press, 2017), 296 pp., $34.99
Given that my ‘if only’ location tends to be, say, Hampstead, living on the edge of the heath in a spacious book-filled house with loads of sash windows, I can’t say Paddy Richardson’s meticulously observed Blackball in the early decades of last century made me long to be there. Fathers, often brutal, work in the mines. Mothers slave in the home. Children have freedom of the sort that a lot of us brought up in the mid-twentieth century shared: the freedom to roam. But society is not kind to them: secondary education is a luxury, not a right, although Richardson also reminds us that this was a time when working people, aware of what they had missed out on when young, often latched on to night classes. At the stage though that we meet the novel’s central characters, boys know that going down the mine is their future. Girls in particular are discouraged from being aspirational. For boys, the only way out of the place is the trenches, and the ticket is often one-way. Being a miner is a job that allows you to avoid conscription, but the skill of the miners also means they’re needed for tunnelling in France. Not exactly the OE of one’s dreams.
Through the Lonesome Dark tells the story of three of Blackball’s young residents. Pansy, with her appropriately floral name, is the daughter of Teresa and Dan Williams. The ‘one thing you can say about Teresa’, writes Richardson, perfectly capturing that passive-aggressive phrase, is that in spite of being married to a boozer she keeps the kids immaculate. We come into Pansy’s story almost from above, through the eyes of a narrator who is neither authorial nor actually identified. The common viewer, perhaps, the everyman, liberally using the inclusive second person pronoun, inclined to write in the vernacular. Pansy is pretty and clever but it’s clear from the opening pages that this won’t get her very far in Blackball. Not when her father is such a duplicitous brute.
The other two major characters are her classmates, both boys. ‘They’re that tight, those three, that their mothers just about have to prise them apart to get them home for their teas.’ So now we have the troublesome triangle just waiting to happen. Pansy, Clem Bright and Otto Bader. Otto Bader? Isn’t the Great War on its way? The one where they changed the name of the Invercargill suburb called Heidelberg? Early on we learn that Clem, the son of a loving and wholesome family, always goes when he’s called, whereas Otto has devilment on his face. For the first half of the novel, when we’re in Blackball, the point-of-view is Pansy’s. Otto escapes to a posh boarding school and then university, then disappears to Somes Island, leaving a compromised Pansy. With Otto gone, the point-of-view moves to the battlefields with Clem, now married to Pansy. Soldier and husband: Clem still goes when he’s called. Otto, therefore, remains the most elusive character. This is the reader’s loss; I like a bit of devilment and would have liked to know him and his ‘alien’ family better.
Richardson is best known for her crime fiction, a genre which requires precision. She brings her significant talent for this to this novel in her creation of place:
Behind the ditches are the coal piles, one for each cottage and delivered Tuesdays from the mine. The cottages, with the weatherboards bare of paint and the tarred roofs, are little and mean-looking but the women keep them clean, my word they do … Not that they’re an ignorant lot here. My word no. This place has its fair share of books to read and people to talk about them and men, important men, you understand, from the unions in England come regularly here to explain what the present thinking is and what’s planned. It’s solidarity here, with socialism the glue fastening everything together.
Meanwhile, in spite of the reader feeling vaguely seduced by this depiction of a working man’s paradise, we’re reminded that ‘the reek of sulphur seeps into the air and hangs in it like burnt treacle and the coal dust is in your hair and on your skin, it’s under your fingernails and you’re coughing it out or it’ll choke you.’
Her writing is no less evocative when the action moves to France. ‘The land as far as you could see was gouged and bare and ruined, there were countless numbers of soldiers and row after row after row of trenches, deep in mud that had turned to thick, dark, stinking liquid.’ I haven’t felt so stuck in mud since I read my way through Ian McEwen’s Atonement. Richardson gets mud, just as she gets coal.
She also gets families, and she gets moral complexity. The two families into whose lives we get glimpses are Pansy’s and Clem’s. Pansy’s father is on the edge of being a little flat – his meanness is merciless. He bullies Pansy and he beats her tragic mother who belongs to the ‘it’s only a bruise – I bumped into the cupboard’ group of battered women. Most readers will want him dead. His determination to thwart Pansy’s chances of a better life is relentless, and one has to wonder what’s in it for him, that he so wants her to fail. Presumably she’s the bird in the hand if she stays working locally for a pittance. It’s implied that it’s a kind of love that he has for her, that makes him reluctant to see her go. Or that’s how he sees it. Fortunately, the relationship between Pansy and her father doesn’t deteriorate still further into incest. Pansy’s mother is also infuriatingly though understandably unsupportive, a woman driven by circumstance into mean-spiritedness, who puts her faith in the Catholic church. Even the adults who are kind to Pansy and work to get the best for her seem unable to overcome the force that is her father. Once she becomes part of Clem’s family, we know things are better for her, although by this stage in the book the point-of-view is hers no longer, so we only know that from a distance.
Clem’s family are clearly a decent bunch: when Clem was strapped for stammering, Mrs Bright had gone to the school – ‘Don’t you ever strap my boy again for things he can’t help, Brian Kennedy.’ The marriage is thrust upon them, and then their son does the unthinkable – volunteering to go to war when he doesn’t have to. Clem’s situation is probably the most complex: right and wrong are strong issues here. Does he do the right thing, marrying the compromised Pansy – but then buggering off to France? Does he do the right thing, fighting in a war that his fellow workers see as a cruel exploitation of working men the world over?
We read far less about Otto’s more invisible family. As 1914 approaches we learn his father has gone back to Germany, leaving his family behind. Otto’s mother teaches the piano and bakes German bread for the local bakery. At this stage Otto is an alien in another way: he’s at university in Christchurch. Meanwhile, with the war approaching, the rumours of what the Germans are prepared to do – kill nuns, bayonet and eat babies – are spreading as quickly as if the locals have access to Twitter. This does not bode well for Otto’s family: no wonder his sister Klara is unwilling to smile at the boys at dances. And then Otto simply disappears – one assumes to Somes Island.
I very much like Richardson’s writing style, she has an easy fluency which is very alluring. There’s the assumption that the reader will get her point, so she refrains from over-explaining. The book, however, is slightly slow to start and I blame that early omniscient narrator for that. Richardson took a stylistic risk, and it didn’t work for me. I found the intrusion of the vernacular of the time slightly irritating – who is it who’s saying ‘My word yes’ and ‘they were that tight?’ I often find this a problem in a historical novel though – getting the conversations sounding authentic without being clichéd. Getting the right tone. Fortunately, Richardson’s writing is generally cliché-free. Once poor Pansy has missed the chance of a gilded scholarship, thanks to her loathsome father, the story takes off. It’s probably because at this stage the point-of-view becomes truly hers. Although she’s only a child it’s into the workforce for her. While appalled by her missed opportunities, I loved her competence. It does make you feel, as a reader, that she’s going to be okay, and such is the power of Richardson’s character development, you really want Pansy to be okay.
You also want poor old Clem, who’s taken on another man’s child, and then found himself in French mud, to come home safely. Enough spoilers already – you’ll have to read it yourself to find out. And because Richardson doesn’t over-explain, there are things you will not find out. As in real life, not every narrative thread is tied in a neat bow. I very much liked this novel for doing this. I also hope that this means that Otto’s story is still tucked away in Richardson’s excellent brain. I’d like to spend some time with him – on Somes Island? It might be bleak and windy there, but it can’t possibly be as gruelling as the mines of Blackball or the trenches of northern France.
LINDA BURGESS is a Wellington writer and reviewer. She also translates French picture books for Gecko Press.