The Bright Side of my Condition, by Charlotte Randall (Penguin, 2014), 244 pp., $30
After setting her first novel, Dead Sea Fruit (1995), in the familiar time and place of Dunedin of the 1970s, Charlotte Randall has often set her stories in more distant times and places, such as Bedlam mental asylum in London in the early nineteenth century in The Curative (2000) and Hokitika in the gold-rush days in Hokitika Town (2011). Thus it is perhaps not surprising that this, her seventh novel, is set on an unnamed and uninhabited ‘speck’ in the subantarctic Snares group of islands south of Stewart Island in the early nineteenth century.
In Hokitika Town Charlotte Randall built such a vivid picture of the setting that I reviewed it alongside two other novels about nineteenth-century New Zealand as primarily an historical novel; and Randall, once a professional researcher, in a final note, acknowledged some of her sources in her evocation of the ‘historical background’. However, Randall has said she has not been attempting to write primarily historical fiction, and that the ‘background’ remains just that, a convincing backdrop against which she can explore the themes that most interest her. Her University of Canterbury degree was in psychology, and her focus as novelist is primarily on what goes on inside the heads of her characters, not on the historical setting outside them (although that setting does influence what goes on in their heads).
The introductory note to The Bright Side of my Condition (the title comes from a phrase in Robinson Crusoe) states the book ‘is based on the true story of four convicts who escaped on a sealing ship from the notorious jail on Norfolk Island’; the note goes on to outline that story very briefly. The novel is ‘based on’ that ‘true story’ much as William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is ‘based on’ R.M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island – the non-fictional source gave Randall a general outline of an interesting situation which she could develop in her own way, just as Golding’s fictional source gave him a similar outline which he could develop to express his personal vision. In her ‘Acknowledgements’ note Randall points to the natural history research that she has incorporated into her development of that basic situation: ‘Details about albatrosses, penguins, seals and whales came from a variety of sources, to which the narrator’s nineteenth-century superstition and general ignorance have contributed a unique layer of distortion.’
Randall’s remark about the narrator’s ‘unique layer of distortion’ points towards the primary focus of the novel: the developing mind of the male narrator, ‘Bloodworth’. (All four characters are identified only by the nicknames he gives them, or by the names they were ‘stuck with in Norfolk jail’.) In the first two sections, which form the body of the novel, the reader is immersed in Bloodworth’s vernacular monologue as he struggles to understand what he sees and experiences in his almost ten years on the island. He is central, an individualised character capable of growth, while the other three characters are foils to him, rather static representative types: Slangam the worker, with practical intelligence, but with no critical intelligence, no interest in ideas, and no feeling for others except as units to be ordered about and dominated in order to get work done; Toper, the dogmatic Catholic follower, unable to step outside the Church’s patterns of belief because he is frightened of Hell, loving to cook but also to drink; and Gargantua, the literary and artistic intellectual, proud of his book-knowledge, fat and self-indulgent, with no real concern or respect for others and an ego as big as his body. Reviewer Nicholas Reid sees this triad as representing Law and the State, Religion, and Art and Learning – which is perhaps what Randall means when she says that the ‘core’ of the book is ‘definitely allegorical’.
Although Bloodworth’s running monologue concentrates on the unfolding present on the island, he does at times remember his past – the escape from Norfolk Island and the coming to their islet, and especially the love affair that he ran away from in search of experience and adventure, and the unfortunate child who was the result of it, although he, like his lover’s mother (and unlike the less superstitious Gargantua), believes her to be a ‘cambion’ – a child born of a human mother impregnated by an incubus. The other three characters share something of their pasts in story-telling sessions that Bloodworth reports, including Gargantua’s story of becoming a dealer in ancient Persian artifacts, and culminating in Slangam’s guilty confession that he had been imprisoned for killing his wife: ‘I were a hard man to please. And she tried very hard to please me, and it irritate me.’
The stories from the past are interesting, but the primary interest moving the book forward is in Bloodworth’s struggles to understand himself, his fellow castaways, and his natural environment – ultimately to find the meaning of it all. The main distorting factor in his cogitations is his assumption that somehow all of this must have been willed by God and be explicable in reward and punishment terms. He is not a religious man and certainly, unlike Toper, not a churchman, but God is an unquestioned assumption underlying all his thought. He has little education, has not read philosophy or theology, but he has a naturally philosophical mind, the mind of one who observes and attempts to understand. He enjoys observing through the year the pattern of life of the penguin colony on the other side of the island, the kind of watching that Charles Darwin was to engage in on the voyage of the Beagle in the 1830s that would reach fruition in The Origin of the Species.
Unlike Darwin, Bloodworth cannot step outside the belief in God as cause. He sees the wastage of individual lives in the reproductive cycle and the food chain, sees that the whole cycle is not ‘dainty and clean’ and involves ‘spilled blood’ and that humans are also caught up in the process; he sees that, as Toper says, ‘the world is beautiful’, but replies ‘But living ain’t.’ To square that understanding with the idea of a God of rewards and punishments, he comes up with the theory that maybe the world in which we live is really Hell, that the awareness of the contradiction between beauty and ‘spilled blood‘ is our punishment for what we have done and been. His watching of the penguin cycle is like Forbush’s watching in Graham Billing’s 1965 novel Forbush and the Penguins (which I reviewed in Landfall magazine in June 1965), but Forbush is post-Darwinian, free of the assumption of a God, and can arrive at a secular existential interpretation of life. Interestingly, Bloodworth’s understanding of the strange summer of 1816, ‘the Year without a Summer’, does not involve rewards and punishments and God, as he tends to think there must be natural causes – although he admits to Gargantua that he ‘din’t get their meaning exactly’ when some pirates in Norfolk Island prison explained how a volcanic eruption could make the sun appear black.
If Bloodworth’s philosophical musings are usually coloured by the God-assumption, his evolving shrewd understanding of his fellow castaways is not entirely so coloured. His skepticism concerning Toper’s Catholicism is irreverent and telling as he responds to Toper’s statement of guilt over not sharing his stolen rations with a dying friend on a prison ship: ‘… but weren’t the bead-mumblers ever too hard and too soft on their precious selves? Too hard in thinking they go to Hell jes for pulling their stupid selfs, and too soft thinking if they mumble their beads right and pass some heavy coin they still go to Heaven after blue murder.’ He sees that Toper’s grief over what he did and did not do will not change his behaviour, that he still will not take blame and will not be brave enough to ever oppose his two fellow felons on the island. On the other hand, when Bloodworth is confronted with Slangam’s confession of wife-murder, instead of feeling justified and righteous he admits to himself of having also felt such anger: ‘Ain’t it a great irritation to see a sad beseeching face looking up at yer …?’, and he asks ‘… why when everyone want love do too much of it make us feel about as sick as a big bowl of sweet cream?’
The plot pattern of the novel is not the adaptation to and ultimate release of the castaways from the island, but rather an ironic one. Bloodworth grows in understanding and acceptance of his situation and finds how to cope by separating himself more from his fellow felons and their endless repetitive arguments, and taking satisfaction from his own thoughts and the small pleasures of accomplishment. He actually comes to feel at home: ‘I walk everywhere on the island and feel it to be my home, more’n all the other places I ever lived.’ But at the same time, his fellow felons have united against him, calling him mad, and awaiting their attack on him he thinks he sees why: ‘Laying their hands upon me, that’s how they cover their eyes and ears. They dint wanna hear how they cud remake their own lives, they don’t wanna see me doing it.’
That realisation of his probable fate is the end of the second section, ‘The Middle Years’, the climax of Bloodworth’s long monologue. The 32 pages of the third section, ‘Eternity’, is Bloodworth’s monologue as he falls, thrown over the cliff on to the rocks of the penguin colony by his fellow felons (as a rescue ship appears on the horizon). Somehow he transcends time and space in the fall, seeing all that happens after he is thrown off the cliff and the ship arrives – even seeing the apparition of his ‘cambion’ daughter, who invites him to watch himself watching the penguins as they slide down the rocks towards the water, where they may be eaten by the seals and grinning in ‘the split second they hang in the air between the rock and the seals, so showing how ‘they contrive to free their selfs from their limits and enjoy their lives … When the man see their grin he laugh too, he laugh and quite forget to hate his self and the other hairy selfs he were Crusoed with.’
I am not sure about this magic realism ending and the brief epilogue paragraphs that follow. My first impulse is to prefer the ironic ending of the second section, but like the rest of the novel the third section does provide a challenge to think and respond. Perhaps it is the appropriate ending for a unique novel that demands and rewards reading and re-reading.
LAWRENCE JONES is Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Otago. His book on the adult fiction of Maurice Gee is forthcoming from Otago University Press.