The Predictions, by Bianca Zander (Hachette/Blackfriars, 2015), 370 pp., $29.99
Novels that satirise or provide ironical commentary on old alternative-lifestyle communes are not all that uncommon. Just a couple of years back there was, from England, Marina Lewycka’s light-hearted romp Various Pets Alive and Dead, in which aged anarcho-Marxist communards come to terms with the fact that their commune-bred kids have grown up despising everything the commune represents.
British-born New Zealand-resident Bianca Zander’s second novel seems at first to be heading somewhere in the same satirical direction. It opens in the late 1970s at Gaialands commune, very definitely in the North Island, within easy reach of Coromandel, and with clear markers of Kiwi identity to be described, as in: ‘The base of Mount Aroha lay just beyond the boundary fence of the commune, on Māori land. The lower slopes were covered with wild mānuka bushes, home to swarms of honey-making bees …’ (p. 75)
Gaialands is not for lazy hippies. It’s run according to strict left-wing ideals, including the sharing of all work duties and the sharing of the raising of children. The commune’s kids have grown up not knowing which among the adults are their biological parents, because the bourgeois nuclear family is evil and it is selfish to love only one person to the exclusion of others. Except that big problems arise once the kids hit puberty and begin to have crushes or fall in love with one another. So there is a big traumatic shake-up when, to avert potential incest, the grown-ups are forced reluctantly to tell the kids who is parent to whom. This leaves some kids in tears and other traumatised that they have for so long been deprived of the exclusive love that parents should provide. There are also (if you like caricatures) two seething lesbians in the commune who want to convert the place to a wimmin’s space.
All this is witnessed and reported by the novel’s first-person narrator Poppy, who is 15 when the story begins. Poppy is in love with her fellow teenager Lukas (they first bonk at the Nambassa festival). Poppy reports the arrival of the tarot-card-wielding Shakti, who proceeds to raise the communard women’s consciousness by telling them that the communard men are exploiting them, and who purports to read the future. In an improvised ceremony called ‘the Predictions’, she gives each of the kids a card. Poppy is told she will leave the commune and meet her true love overseas. But is she destined to live out her fate? And what about Lukas? And what about the additional trauma of one of the commune kids, Fritz, going missing and presumed dead at the same time New Age Shakti is visiting?
There are a number of things I’ve learnt in book reviewing.
Among them is that we should never despise writers who can keep a story moving. Bianca Zander can certainly do this, and if the height of your literary desire is what is called, somewhat demeaningly, a ‘page-turner’, then The Predictions is the book for you. The way Zander she sets up her story in the first third of the novel is also clever and engaging.
Another learnt truth is that, by long (and perfectly reasonable) convention, it is unfair for reviewers to spike the impact of a newly-published novel by giving away the major turns of its plot – at least if the author intends them to be surprises. I have, of course, synopsised above a bit less than the first third of the novel. But this now forces me into writing in code, for if I were to demonstrate how everything proceeds to go wrong with The Predictions, and why it never rises above being a mere ‘page-turner’, then I would have to outline all the improbable and clichéd things that happen in the novel’s remaining two-thirds, as Poppy relocates to London and the 1980s happen.
Commune girl meets straight-laced parents of a boyfriend for cheesy ‘clash-of-cultures’ comedy? Check. Fantasies about somebody becoming a rock star, and going on drug-soaked tours, and getting to record at Abbey Road? Check. Mind-blowing change of attitude when baby is born? Check. Awfully contrived ending to give neat thread-tying solution to mystery set up early in the novel? Check.
Offering no plot spoilers, I can at least say that Poppy’s Lukas is a totally synthetic and unbelievable character, swapping roles purely at the insistence of the plot – broody teenager, musical rebel, reliable lover, feckless druggie etc. etc.
More damaging, though, is the narration.
There is nothing here as sophisticated as the ‘unreliable narrator’. Poppy says what she says. And what she says is often that mode of narration in which long stretches of time are neatly shovelled into one paragraph so that gaps in the plot can be bridged. I know this technique is as old as the yarn-spinning of Moll Flanders, but it can still jar. Note how the months fly away thus:
The temporary job became a permanent one, and I was promoted from filing and tea making to the bottom of the secretarial pool. Fran, who had finished her studies and didn’t want to work full time in the café, reluctantly took my old job, and the two of us moved into a bedsit in Fulham. Fran hated the tedious, repetitive tasks we were expected to do, but I loved the propriety of it all, the rituals that ensured everything ran as inefficiently as possible … (p. 137)
Biggest flaw of all, though, is Poppy’s tendency to neatly spell out messages, presumably for readers who aren’t up to having things implied and who have never encountered the concept of subtext. Thus:
Wide-awake, crazed with insomnia, brooding, I would remember what we had been taught on the commune about the dangers of manifesting thoughts. We’d had it drummed into us to be careful not to dwell on our fears or we would make them a reality. But the harder I tried to expel my dark thoughts, the more persistent they became. (p. 240)
I had been unaware until now how badly, growing up, I had wanted to be loved by one mother exclusively, not passed around, but held close to her heart and cherished beyond reason. (p. 328)
It was one of those moments when I felt very keenly that his life was in my hands, just as mine had been in the hands of my parents, and theirs had been in the hands of their parents before them, a chain of loving but sometimes incompetent responsibility that stretched back to eternity. For the first time in my life, I felt compassion for the adults. All parenting was an experiment, and however wrongheadedly theirs was conceived, they had carried it out with the best of intentions. Behind every misguided step had been love. (pp. 357–58)
Are we reading a novel for adults, or for lesson-learning teenagers? Or perhaps a series of editorials disguised as confessions? I am all in favour of the values Poppy (and the author) are pushing: lasting love, fidelity, the right care of children. But handled this crudely, they become devalued and cheapened. It’s like seeing a crude propaganda poster for a party you support.
I remember enjoying Bianca Zander’s first novel The Girl Below in 2012 (also a young woman’s first-person narration; also shifting between New Zealand and England). I did fear that Zander was suffering a little from first-novel-itis, in trying to get off her chest everything she had to say in a crowded plot, and I was a little deterred by an awkward supernatural element in the tale. Nevertheless, The Girl Below was a sophisticated piece of writing, with much shrewd and close observation of people and specific places. In comparison, The Predictions is a big step back, more formulaic, more inclined to tell when it should dramatise, its characters more cardboard.
Page-turner is one demeaning term. Another is chick lit, and males are usually rebuked for their sexism should they dare to use it. But that is what The Predictions winds up as: Chick lit. Sorry.
DR NICHOLAS REID is an Auckland poet, historian, teacher and biographer and he runs the weekly book blog Reid’s Reader.