Landscape with Solitary Figure, by Shonagh Koea (Random House: Vintage, 2014), 264 pp., $29.99
Reading Landscape with Solitary Figure, Shonagh Koea’s latest novel, the question ‘does the author mean us to take this story seriously?’ began as a whisper but became, by the end, an insistent shout in my head. All the familiar Koea tropes are there: the solitary, misunderstood, middle-aged woman; the precise descriptions of material things (interiors of houses, clothes, gardens); the skillful plot manipulations keeping the reader’s attention even after sympathy with the main character (secondary characters in Koea’s fiction are almost all one-dimensional) has been lost; the finely honed sentences, with their deliberated repetitions and self-conscious vocabulary; the wicked (in every sense of the word) humour. So why was I asking myself if this story, as opposed to others by Koea, was intended as a deliberate joke, a foray into the world of Grand Guignol?
To answer that question it’s necessary to look back on Koea’s considerable and impressive body of work. A former journalist, Koea burst onto the New Zealand literary scene in 1989 with the publication of her novel The Grandiflora Tree. Amidst the clamour of literary voices at that time, many of them female, her voice stood out, as much for what she didn’t write as for what she did. It was a time of political and social upheaval, but Koea chose to write only and exclusively about the personal life; in the case of The Grandiflora Tree, about grief and its consequent social dislocation. The territory Koea mapped out in that novel, defined in the Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature as ‘the contrast between domestic misery and various forms of withdrawal or escape’, would, over the next two and a half decades, become her own. In story after story readers would be invited to share the lives of women ‘burdened with remembrance’, possessed of a ‘sense of nameless desolation’, but still capable of romantic longings.
Accompanying Koea’s protagonists and softening the effect of so much misery were wonderful descriptions, particularly of domestic interiors, each object lovingly observed, every nuance of colour and placement and provenance harnessed in the service of her art. Reading these passages was like looking at a Vermeer painting, teasing out the meaning inherent in objects caught in the gaze of the supreme artist of domestic life. Koea’s canvas was small, inviting comparisons with Jane Austen, but, again like Austen’s, it was satisfyingly precise. Her stories felt real. That question – are we meant to take this seriously? – didn’t arise.
So what, in Landscape with Solitary Figure, has changed? On the surface, very little. Ellis, the heroine, stands in a direct line from The Grandiflora Tree’s Bernadette. Her resemblance to the heroines of Koea’s other novels, particularly Elaine from The Wedding at Buena Vista, Margaret from Sing to me Dreamer, and Rosalind from Staying Home and Being Rotten, is clear from the start. Ellis, a widow (like many of Koea’s protagonists) is lonely, unhappy, and increasingly paranoid. She imagines that the world (in other words, most of the people she meets) is out to get her. Comparisons with Janet Frame’s State of Siege have been made before in relation to earlier stories by Koea, but they are even more appropriate here. The reader is asked to believe that, with the exception of Ellis’s son (another familiar Koea trope), the world is populated by nasty, vindictive people who delight in preying on vulnerable women. That these monsters are people who could be our neighbours, or our fellow guests at a dinner party, or – perhaps the most likely interpretation – we ourselves, is what Koea seems to be suggesting.
To give an example, there is a passage towards the end of the book when Ellis, attending yet another unhappy dinner party hosted by arch-villain Martin Dodd (his act of unbelievable nastiness is the thread on which the plot of Landscape with Solitary Figure hangs), at which she feels judged and humiliated, plucks up the courage to ask her neighbour, ‘a thin sour lemony-faced creature’, ‘“Why don’t you like me? Why are you all so rude to me?”’ The answer – ‘“Because you wear pearl stud earrings and anyone who wears pearl stud earrings is a snotty bitch”’ – was the point at which my suspicion that this was not a story to be taken seriously morphed into something like conviction. Then, when I read what came next – ‘Suddenly Ellis [began] to understand newsreels of stonings and whippings, decapitations in foreign places, the vile actions of crowds or soldiers, or indeed anybody, against the defenceless’ – I felt sure I was right. If equating a putdown at a dinner party with stonings and decapitations is not a joke up there with Swift’s advice to the Irish to eat their babies, then I don’t know what else it could possibly be.
Of course Koea is too skilful to leave us without an understanding of why Ellis is the way she is. Scenes from a deprived and abusive childhood appear throughout the novel; a happy marriage, ending with the sudden death of a loved husband, figures briefly and poignantly; an only child living on the other side of the world provides some of the few normal moments in the story. But none of this really explains Ellis’s descent into paranoia, or why the author chose to run with that paranoia and convert it into Grand Guignol.
In earlier fictions the black comedy inherent in everything Koea writes was mitigated by the idea of rescue (there are elements of the romance novel in most of Koea’s stories), but in Landscape with Solitary Figure there is no Captain Kothari (Sing to Me Dreamer), no Richard (Wedding at Buena Vista), no Ben (Staying Home and Being Rotten), to hold out hope of an alternative to the isolation Ellis chooses as the solution to the universal vileness of other people. Opting to write the story of her ordeal in ‘blood so old and dry it would leave no impression on the paper’, she, so the author would have us believe, is taking the only course open to her. The trouble for the reader is that by the time this dénouement is reached, we have stopped caring.
Ronda Cooper, reviewing The Wedding at Buena Vista, wrote of the ‘chronic passivity’ of Koea’s heroines, ‘their self-effacement and politeness, their possum-in-the-headlights response to life’s difficulties’. It’s not easy to render such women appealing. Jean Rhys manages it, just, in her early fiction, but goes on to rise above the restraints of the victim story in her masterpiece, The Wide Sargasso Sea. Clearly Koea is not headed in this direction. If Landscape with Solitary Figure is anything to go by, her fiction is moving in the direction of greater and darker irony. ‘Polite, ornate and nasty’ is how the novelist Tim Wilson describes Koea’s fiction. Perhaps we can look forward to a true horror story next time round.
Elspeth Sandys has published eight novels, two collections of short stories, and has written extensively for the BBC and Radio New Zealand. She has won numerous awards, including the Elena Garro (Pen International) Short Story Competition for her 2003 collection Standing in Line, and the NZ Media Award in 2012 for her play The Cave of Winds. She is currently working on a film script with Australian producer Richard Stewart. />