No Man’s Land by A.J. Fitzwater (Paper Road Press, 2020), 154 pp, $22; Jerningham by Cristina Sanders (The Cuba Press, 2020), 388 pp, $37
The best historical fiction gives readers a space to explore the origins of issues that continue to affect them. It also presents writers with unique challenges of voice, emotional plausibility, and historical and contemporary validity. Two new novels, No Man’s Land by Vogel Award-winner A.J. Fitzwater and Cristina Sanders’ first adult novel, Jerningham, tackle these challenges in different but equally engaging ways.
In the early 1940s, when thousands of New Zealand men served in the armed forces overseas, women stepped into traditional male roles in farming, factories and other essential industries. This provides the backdrop for Fitzwater’s exploration of sex, gender and identity in No Man’s Land.
For Dorothea (Tea) Gray, being posted by the Woman’s Land Service to the North Otago farm where her twin brother Robbie worked as a shearer before his deployment allows her to maintain (at least momentarily) the illusion that the world has more in store for her than a life of married respectability. Despite fearing that she will be somehow be found wanting, she is readily accepted into the MacGregor household, and is immediately taken under the wing of two of her brother’s closest friends, the frail young Grant Stevenson and an irrepressible Māori girl called Izzy Larson. As hard as the work is, Tea’s physical exhaustion is tempered by a deep-seated awareness of the land and its inhabitants, and the sense of something deep within herself struggling to awaken. But is not until Grant and Izzy explain that she is tipua, possessing, like them, an animal as well as a human spirit, that she finally begins to understand the awareness that has tugged at the edges of her consciousness for as long as she can remember. Surrendering to the power—whaiwhaiā—that flows through her is terrifying for Tea, but Grant and Izzy teach her how to use and control it. Where Grant and Izzy are aligned with the land, Tea is connected with the water and, through it, to Robbie. Her brother’s pain and fear calls to her with increasing urgency. As her taniwha self she travels the oceans to save him, and discovers that Robbie’s whaiwhaiā is of an altogether different (and even more dangerous) nature.
Despite its brevity, No Man’s Land is a rich, poetic and deeply layered novel, its language and imagery suffused with sensuality. Tea can smell the way Grant looks at her (a pleasant mixture of dust and hay), thoughts tingle like cold water, and when startled she gulps down the taste of her heart, or feels the sting of fear on skin. This synaesthetic layering of sensory experiences transcending normal sight and sound conveys the intensity of Tea’s interaction with the world around her, a hyper-awareness that escalates during moments of transformation, when cognition is subsumed by somatic experience. Here Fitzwater deploys the tools of poetry to convey the urgency of being, with great effect. Modifiers and conjunctions are abandoned and the text rings with assonance, consonance and percussive rhythm: eels’ voices join in ‘an age-old water song’ and, within that song, ‘disharmony; water shed, breath shed, blood shed’. Ocean currents deliver ‘song sweetness savour surrender’. Senses collapse into one another entirely: ‘green-yellow-sunshine grass-hay’, ‘hurt-fear’, ‘piss-yellow red-clot taste-scent’.
Skin, the body’s largest sensory organ, is a recurring motif, first as a metaphor for passing and later as a physical manifestation of identity. When she arrives on the farm Tea feels like she is wearing ‘[t]he wrong clothes, the wrong skin. A skin that pretended she could be a good farmhand. A skin obviously too much like her brother’s … this was her one chance to draw a new skin over herself.’ But as she comes to understand and accept her tipua nature, skin is transformed from an external veneer to an expression of her true self, a literal second skin that she can hide or reveal at will.
Skin also comes to symbolise the responsibility that comes with power. Although the terms tipua and whaiwhaiā carry frightening connotations, the evil things that humans do far outweigh those of their animal-selves, and their actions carry consequences: ‘wages of skin [that] must be addressed’.
These themes are reflected in—and amplified by—the novel’s time and place. The war may have necessitated a temporary expansion in the scope and extent of female participation in the workforce, but New Zealand remains a society dominated by racism, sexism and homophobia. Despite finding her feet alongside the other Landgirls (who, given the opportunity to step beyond the normal gender roles, spend their days shearing, repairing fences and hunting feral pigs), Tea can’t shake her mother’s denunciation of her as ‘unladylike, loud, not marriage material’, which follows her wherever she goes. Fearing that the colour of her skin or the width of her nose will betray her own Māori heritage, she cringes at the MacGregors’ casual racism, and she is more terrified by her attraction to Izzy—forbidden, unnatural, dangerous—than she is of her taniwha self. Embracing her waiwhaiā enables Tea to recognise that, beneath the skin, all of us are both different and connected, and that being gay/trans/Māori/tipua is not wrong (although this acceptance does not, it would seem, stretch so far as to investigate her own heritage). But safety necessitates the concealment of these identities, and the four tipua dedicate themselves to providing protection for others of their kind until society is ready to accept them.
Fitzwater, who identifies as non-binary, draws on the long history of the LGBTQI+ community, in which self-created families provided (and still provide) a place for those rejected by mainstream society, to inform the narrative, but the themes explored here will resonate with anybody who has found themself on the margins. As a life-long social misfit, I recognise the relief that comes from finding others from the same tribe, and the part of me that still checks the back of every wardrobe for a streetlamp in a snowy wood identifies with Tea’s reluctance to relinquish her ‘childish’ belief that ‘the world holds a secret in store for her’. (After all, what is a good novel if not an exercise in wish fulfilment?)
Although its fantastical themes and impressionistic structure may force some readers beyond their comfort zone, No Man’s Land is a rich and evocative novel that rewards repeated reading.
In contrast to the watercolour expressionism of No Man’s Land, Cristina Sanders’ Jerningham is a meticulously composed oil portrait of New Zealand’s early colonial history painted by a straight white man. The novel’s narrator, Arthur Lugg, is one of the first settlers to reach the New Zealand Company’s colony at Port Nicholson, arriving on the Aurora in January 1840 just days after surveying work for the town has begun. A bookkeeper by training, he is engaged by Colonel William Wakefield to carry out clerical duties and keep an eye on Wakefield’s venturesome young nephew, Jerningham. This places Lugg in the ideal position to document the development of the colony and the increasingly complex relationships between and within colonial and Indigenous interests.
During the course of his work Lugg comes into contact with many notable individuals, including Charles Heaphy, with whom he shares a hut soon after his arrival; Reverend Hatfield, whose affection and respect for his congregation is contrasted with that of other missionaries who ‘impose [themselves] on the natives or rearrange their system of aristocracy’; and Te Rauparaha, whose fearsome presence on Kāpiti casts a shadow from Nelson to Wanganui. He is also witness to the earliest days of Wellington city, the foundations of which develop at a remarkable pace, from temporary camps on the flat flood-prone Pito-one foreshore to pre-fab houses spreading across Thorndon and key landmarks such as Cuba Street and the Terrace.
At the centre of Lugg’s professional and personal life is Jerningham Wakefield, a charismatic and enterprising young man with little respect for authority, whose business dealings range from land-deals with East Coast tribes on the Company’s behalf to establishing a trading post and public house-cum-brothel at Wanganui (which he considers his town, having negotiated the sale), to trading in horses and hounds. His dealings with others reflect an effortless facility to move freely between duty and self-interest, exploiting the bonds of friendships one moment, making gestures of extraordinary generosity the next.
As Jerningham’s official minder, Lugg travels the country, sitting in on negotiations with various chiefs and reporting his observations back to Colonel Wakefield, thus keeping himself gainfully (if not always safely or appreciatively) employed. Jerningham is also responsible for brokering Lugg’s engagement to Dorothy Lewis, a young governess abandoned by her former employers, whose reputation as a respectable woman is at risk of falling into disrepute. Most important here is Lugg’s meticulous recording of events, providing a view of escalating tensions between the New Zealand Company, Māori and the Crown. The relentless tide of immigrants with pre-purchased titles and the rapid expansion at both Port Nicholson and across the strait in Nelson, as well as resistance from local Māori (leading to armed confrontation and culminating in the ‘Wairua Massacre’ that cost the lives of twenty-two settlers and four Māori), threaten the Company’s existence, which is made even more precarious by competition between the Company and the Crown for land, governance and proposals for the location of the nation’s capital.
This is the setting, then, for the novel. Sanders has drawn on contemporary sources to inform her characters’ thoughts and deeds, explaining in an author’s note at the end of the book that the attitudes to race, culture, class and gender they espouse are intended to reflect common perspectives of the time—one of the challenges of historical fiction, particularly when told in the first person. The value here is that Sanders can provide glimpses of some of the more problematic aspects of colonial society, albeit through a white male lens.
Jerningham, for example, has benefited significantly from his adoption of Māori ways and is concerned that the imposition of ‘our language, our religion, our culture, our so called “civilising influence” … [will] cause [Māori] to lose their own way of being’. He also despairs: ‘heaven knows what the Māori make of [the concept of sovereignty] … there is no word for it in Māori. Even Williams can’t begin to translate something where the concept doesn’t exist.’ Meanwhile, Charles Heaphy asks Jerningham to ‘imagine how powerful [Māori] will be with the vocabulary and complexity of ideas that English will give them’.
Sanders also expresses regret that, for the sake of authenticity, she was unable to provide a feisty heroine and ‘woke bloke’. But Lugg is a thoughtful and relatively self-aware narrator, a passive observer rather than active participant. When asked by Te Puna, the Te Āti Awa chief from whom Port Nicholson was purchased, ‘How many more Pākehā come?’, he wonders (fleetingly) how he would feel about a foreign contingent arriving in Somerset ‘spilling endlessly over our hills, trampling the graves of our forebears’, and he becomes increasingly troubled by the motivations and actions of government, missionaries and Company alike: ‘each was as bad as the other, all scrabbling for power, trampling over rights and ideals, bribing the Māori for land or labour or souls’. But rather than taking any sort of constructive action, Lugg allows himself to be distracted by other considerations (although he has the decency to refrain from reminding Te Puna that ‘when he sold [the land] it had become our home’).
Sanders’ portrayal of Wellington’s colonial beginnings is, of course, only one perspective of a troubled and complex history, and I would love to see the equivalent scene through Māori eyes. But even with its limited view, Jerningham is not merely a reiteration of the Company propaganda, such as Heaphy’s Company paintings ‘of ships nestling in calm harbours with peaceful natives resting by the water’s edge’. Rather than a postcard of a Southern Eden, it is closer to the sketches Heaphy painted for himself, ‘fast, visceral and real’. Here we get a glimpse of discontent and discord: ‘of boggy swamps and dark hills … wild-eyed native men and bare-breasted women with blue lips and tattooed chins, naked children and the impoverished shacks of the Māori settlements’.
CUSHLA McKINNEY is a Dunedin mother and scientist.