A Surfeit of Sunsets by Dulcie Castree (Mākaro Press, 2016), 204 pp., $35
Dulcie Castree’s pen is a diamond drill inscribing patterns on crystal glass: every page of this novel rings with exquisitely cut sentences. They catch brief moments of a place, a scene, a figure, and send them chiming and resounding through the story, holding it from the first pages to the heartbreaking end.
It is set in Taiwhenua, an ordinary seaside town on the coast north of Wellington, and the people living there might seem familiar enough, too. May, a child-woman of around 40, born late to her mother, lives much loved with her aunt and uncle, Phoebe and Henry, after her mother dies. Shirley has taken a six-month lease on a bach when an affair with a married man ends. Poesy, newly widowed, has changed her name from Freda in an attempt to reinvent her life. Miss Vogel teaches at the local school – she has taught for 25 years and sees no need to invent new sentences. She struggles with original sin, and slashes young ambitions with a red pen. Joan, married with five grown sons, searches for the other half of her lonely thought. Francis is a young teacher, new to the school; he has an easy rapport with the students, and no idea how he annoys Miss Vogel. Fat Wally, with an accent from an unknown Eastern European country, lies on the beach and translates the clouds into his own language.
The malevolence that lies like an undertow beneath the ordinariness is not unexpected, but in this writer’s tender hands it becomes unexpectedly tragic.
Taiwhenua is a place of spectacular views and sunsets, but these follow the inhabitants inside their sun-shocked homes; window-sills and streets turn to sand and sea, the sky has no boundaries, and the sunsets have to be rendered into endlessly tacky paintings to flatten their power, or the blinds drawn down against them. It is also a place where people are in search of a voice, and though Poesy and the Pukunui Literary Society do their best, their attempts have a similarly flattening effect.
The magpie has a few things to say, strutting the no-man’s land between the Parade and the sandhills. With little more in his head than ‘the bright sharp eyes of conquest and accumulation’, he sings ‘his published song from his sleek throat’. Miss Vogel thinks the magpie’s song ‘is suitable for children, and so it is … It is likely, though, that like their parents and grandparents, they will remember only “quardle oodle, ardle”. “And what’s wrong with that?” sings the magpie.’
Curnow’s poem ‘Wild Iron’ makes an appearance, too, the wind and sea and thoughts ‘wild with the iron that tears at the nail’, for there is a hard, implacable side of Taiwhenua. Poesy’s holiday home might command a view, but in this new season of widowhood the view ‘dominates the house and does the commanding’; the house becomes a Stonehenge, ‘shafted with sun’, and the views become circular. ‘On the beach, every grain of sand has its high point and shadow, every drop of water its secretive underside, its light crowned face. Even the mountains can’t be relied upon to present a solid face. They move forward, forecasting rain, and when they move back, it is not in defeat but ritual.’
Shirley wakes before the magpie one morning: ‘A sound between a roar and a scream has swept along the beach and she wakes crying too. The sound has presence. Shirley seeks for the word that means a sound embodied.’ She cannot find it, and takes a pill to make it night again.
Later she picks up the pieces of the morning, ignores one face at the window (Fat Wally’s) but cannot avoid the other (Poesy’s). Poesy has a voice Shirley has heard before: ‘It jumps queues, calls across theatre foyers, across theatres themselves. It is a voice certain of an audience.’ ‘Ruthless in her pursuit of happiness’, Poesy has plans for Taiwhenua, and has selected Shirley to help.
Then, thankfully, Shirley meets May, so simply at home with herself and with the river, the sandhills and the sea: ‘a blessed companion’. There might be plenty of mean little voices in this town, ‘starved of self-importance or stuffed with it’, but May ‘hears only the voices of those who love her’. Their friendship blooms, quickly, happily.
Unhappily for others at the public swimming pool, Shirley greets another new friend, Francis, ‘new and beautiful’, with a kiss and a song that ‘speaks of love more boldly’. Miss Vogel, appalled, deals with the watching school children who are at first quiet, then noisy. Later, she calls on May’s aunt Phoebe to rework an earlier conversation.
Phoebe prefers Joan’s simple truths, but doubts them and herself, because they talk at ease in their respective kitchens, and Joan has no diploma. Phoebe listens instead to Miss Vogel, who tells her that May’s loving kiss needs to be locked up in a ‘home’.
Deftly turned sentences reverberate around the meanings of home; they echo into passages illuminating Phoebe, Henry and May’s home, the photographs in the alcove shelves of the best room, and the old oak kitchen table: ‘It is made for baking and eating and for supporting companionable elbows. You can iron on it, sit on it, write letters on it; bang it with your fists in hunger or anger. You can change or bath a baby on it, cut out a dress or do a jigsaw. You can decorate a cake with one, two, fifty, sixty candles. You can rest your head on it, weak with tears or laughter. You can use it to draw a crayon picture of a half smiling sun sitting on a wavy sea. The surface shows that all this and more has been done on this table for three generations.’
Shirley is at home there, for the first time since her own mother died. But it is not enough.
Poesy is a brittle but insistent force, inveigling Shirley, and betraying her deepest secrets to Fat Wally. The novel turns on the sharp moment when Shirley recognises the betrayal in a glance, a phrase, a tone of voice. It is the beginning of a sequence of events that is comic, tawdry, poignant and anguishing.
It is not a loudly announced tragedy: it resides in the twist of a hasty decision, a promise not kept, a numbed conscience too easily assuaged, a conflicted malevolence, the lack of faith in ordinary kindness, a note ignored or missed.
Nobody sees what happens because they are watching The Cosby Show with the blinds drawn against the setting sun.
In Living in the Maniototo, Janet Frame writes: ‘A sentence which, travelling, looks out of portholes as far as horizons and beyond is good.’ A Surfeit of Sunsets is that kind of good. It is a novel of large themes – sex, love, colonisation, friendship and home – caught in sharp, quick light. Prismatic sentences take an image, a phrase, a moment from one page and refract it through the twists and turns of a character to send it cascading into the final pages. Sentences delicately attuned to the small shifts of a moment carve out the casual cruelties of a character, and also shape tenderly the private hell she suffers. An earthy turn of phrase is wickedly funny, and also embodies depths of human kindness, frailty and love.
Its characters can seem frail, as if hastily transplanted from some forgotten place, and at the mercy of whatever might pass for a prevailing wind. But there’s also a fine sense for the poetry of the place, the search for the voices belonging to it, and the voices found and lost.
This novel was written between 1985 and 1986, and accepted for publication soon afterwards, but there were difficulties and the manuscript languished for nearly 30 years. Its eventual publication is another story that turns on small moments emanating from the depths. The first edition, produced in 2016 by a small miracle of family and collective effort, sold out in days, topped the best-sellers list and led to this Mākaro Press edition. We can be immensely thankful for that. Much has changed in the past 30 years, but some things do not.
We are more likely to be sat in front of a Facebook algorithm or following tweets about Bill Cosby’s arrest than watching The Cosby Show, but chances are we still do not understand the language of the world around us. The institutional homes have been closed down, and homelessness has become a problem that does not officially exist, but chances are we still search for a sense of place, a home, a true voice.
Chances are, too, the pleasures of reading Dulcie Castree’s crystalline prose will keep ringing through the decades. Crystal glass might sound like something fragile, but it is not. The chiming tones come from the molten metals poured into the glass-making materials; its shape is wrought by muscular grace, the heat of the furnace and perfectly pitched air. A Surfeit of Sunsets might have lain a long time unpublished, but it has a resonance far beyond more temporal exigencies.
GILLIAN RANSTEAD is a book reviewer and the author of the novels A Red Silk Sea (Penguin Books, 2005) and Girlie (Penguin Books, 2008). She lives in Wellington.