Helen Watson White
A Place to Stand, by Helen McNeil (S/P Del Sur Productions, 2013), 228 pp., $25.
Mr and Mrs Simpson were standing right next to the wooden block with its basin and Mrs Simpson was holding the lacy baby. Sandra tried to listen to the man in the white robes but Amy’s prayers still hadn’t worked, and the baby was crying loudly. Mrs Simpson was bouncing it up and down. Mrs Simpson held the baby out, over the basin, and the man in white robes poked his fingers in the baby’s ears, and dabbed something in the baby’s wide-open mouth. The baby cried harder. Then he poured water on its head.
The strength of Helen McNeil’s writing is the simple style used to convey a child’s perceptions and the struggle of the young Sandra McLeod to make sense of life, culture and belief in the adult world.
McNeil’s first novel brings an English family to New Zealand in the 1950s, where they try to make ‘A place to stand’ in the Bay of Plenty mill town of Kawerau, where Maori – a people completely foreign to them – have already established their turangawaewae over generations. The story begins, however, in 1975, when Sandra, working in real estate in Auckland, is called back to her home town as her mother is dying. Eight of the book’s 22 chapters deal with her dilemma in the present, which is complicated (we find by degrees) by her relationships with her family and other townspeople in the past.
‘I’ll never go back,’ says Sandra. ‘Never.’Gradually a knot of problems is revealed that makes her intransigence plausible. Her closeness to her younger sister Amy, who spent her early childhood in callipers and then with one foot in a built-up boot, means more as it is revealed how Amy’s hold on life was threatened by a succession of violent events – more than could be considered normal, even in a landscape of forces thermal and volcanic.
Issues of teenage sexuality, endemic racism and religious prejudice are intertwined in Sandra’s story of young love, making it seem more tragedy than comedy. (The resolution to this particular strand in the novel comes as an unexpected gift, which does make up for some of the misery.) Sandra’s is partly a growing-up story, her sense of responsibility for Amy increasing in proportion to her mother’s loss of mental stability, which leads to the gradual breakdown of the family. The vague aura of abnegation and neglect surrounding Mrs McLeod seems due to homesickness – the migrant experience meaning gradual severance of all home and family ties – but we are asked to look elsewhere for the source of her, and Amy’s, unsettling delusions and dreams.
Often with a first novel there is – like it or not – an expectation that autobiography might form the basis or background of the lives described. The author is quite open about this, about the fact that her own mother suffered from mental illness and that, as a psychologist, she herself has worked with children who had ‘multiple stressors in their lives’. This relation-to-life is not at all a bad thing, in my view; the detailed perceptions of environment and community given the child characters are, as I said, amongst the strongest and most appealing parts of the story. They just happen to be based on McNeil and her family’s experiences as emigrants from the UK, travelling to start a new life in Kawerau in the 1950s.
It is in the more complex layering of story upon story that the author seems to me to go into imaginative overdrive. In adding not just mystery and suspense but superstition, horror and violence to an otherwise authentic childhood narrative, she sometimes falls into the mire of over-writing. Repetition and exaggeration are not welcome when the subject matter is serious enough in itself.
This is of course a matter of opinion. Some readers may not mind the lurid colourings of melodrama if what they are after is a good ghost story.
HELEN WATSON WHITE has degrees in English and theology from the University of Otago, and for five years was sole editor at University of Otago Press. She is a freelance editor, writer and arts reviewer.
marie greenhalgh says
interesting perspective Ms White. I found it fascinating, the intricate weaving of the strands kept me mesmerised from start to finish. can’t wait for another novel by this author.