What You Wish For by Catherine Robertson (Penguin Random House, 2019), 384 pp., $38
What You Wish For seems, at first, too simplistic a title from this fine novelist whose talent for comedy and character delineation puts her among our best sellers. But it transpires that, as in Gabriel’s Bay, Robertson’s previous book and the setting for both novels, characters must indeed be attentive to the outcome of their wishes. That’s if they know what they wish for, in the first place. Calling up questions of human desires, wish fulfilment and self-realisation, this novel explores human vulnerability, humorously, through the residents of a small beach-side town somewhere, anywhere, in New Zealand.
As in her previous novel, Robertson’s rollicking narrative and entertaining dialogue follow a rotating point of view, with a close study third-person voice for each chapter. Most characters from Gabriel’s Bay reappear in this novel, which is a chronological sequel, yet the two would work independently of each other very well as the concerns and main players in each vary. New characters have arrived at the bay in What You Wish For, swelling the population considerably and sharing centre stage with marginal characters from Gabriel’s Bay. The main character to retain prominence across both novels is Sidney, a solo mother, whose concern for economic viability and struggle to find part-time work and remain in this tiny community have diminished only slightly now that she is in a settled relationship with Kerry, the English stranger who has come to town. Kerry works in the bigger neighbouring town of Hampton and has bought a large farmhouse, but stays over often to help with Sidney’s growing and boisterous boys. Their banter and deepening relationship form a hub of the novel’s interactions, even as complications threaten the nature of their closeness.
Kerry’s parents, the loquacious Bronagh and decidedly not-loquacious Doug Macfarlane, had been offstage voices in Gabriel’s Bay, writing and emailing or phoning with advice and concern. They now appear in New Zealand for a long-term holiday, ostensibly to catch up with their son. But for Bronagh, a nurse back in the UK, the trip offers a chance to mend hearts and relationships wherever she goes. Doug finds opportunities to mend broken pieces of machinery that come his way. Both find plenty of occupation in the farm and persona of their farm-stay host, Vic Halsworth: grim, silent and desperately in trouble in all areas of his farm, but so repressed that he cannot even recognise the seriousness of his situation. Poor old Vic doesn’t even know what to wish for.
Bronagh had earlier conspired with Mac Reid, the receptionist and mainstay of the local doctor’s surgery, to find a replacement for their aging medic Doctor Love, so that he could retire to concentrate on constructing dioramas of battle scenes for a miniature village project, which a committee believes will give new life to the bay. Bronagh and Mac came up with Ashwin Ghadavi, an English doctor escaping from the expectations of a loud and pushy Indian family. Ash arrives in this Kiwi backwater speaking a formal and elegant style of English that makes for fine comedy exchanges in The Shack, the diner run by Mac’s husband Jacko. Ash’s culture shock is compounded by his instant infatuation with another newcomer, Emma. She is no stranger to the district, however, as she is Mac and Jacko’s daughter. An eco-activist, Emma has been working in communes in the UK as a caregiver and teacher. The reason for her unexpected reappearance is not revealed until she is spotted with Loko, a self-styled guru who has attached himself to a group of campers on Vic’s land, who are using riparian rights as their opportunity to pitch tents there. Luddites, dropouts, hippies or homeless, they are a mix of folk who call themselves Wood Sprites. Many of the funniest moments in the book for me, a product of the 1970s back-to-the-land movements, come from Robertson’s gentle satire on the contrasting values between these earnest do-gooders who are only taking care of themselves, alongside Loko’s self-named, self-made stirrer, and against Vic’s wordless defence of the depleting and unsustainable farm practices that he has always maintained. Robertson deftly undercuts any flagrant stereotyping of these characters with a sense of their sincerity and conviction. These are complex topical issues, articulated and examined from many sides.
Robertson’s character-propelled chapters drive through a range of crises, setbacks, connections made and lost and actions taken and mistaken. The changing focus of narration opens this range, and while some of the problems have crossed over from the earlier book, new problems and conflicts emerge, in particular the threat of foreign ownership of beach-front property, with building developers rubbing greedy hands, while farmers are fined impossibly high amounts for contaminating water. Children are very much part of this picture, too, from the spirited flashes of exchanges with Sidney’s sons to the sad circumstances of Reuben, an orphan whom the aging and childless Patricia and Bernard offer to foster. The tiny movements toward socialisation that their puzzled patience secures with him show the warmth and compassion that pulse at the core of this book. And then there’s Devon, so beautiful that his gender is often questioned, though he is desperate to find heterosexual love. He is secure and safe in his lively whānau, while his enigmatic former school friend, Barrett (Brownie), fresh out of prison, is the product of a fractured family and economic uncertainty.
Robertson’s depiction of cultural exchanges highlights the changing populations of Aotearoa. She captures the bilingual banter of te reo and English in Devon’s home; Ash’s formality arising from his educated Indian family, successfully transplanted to England, now confronting the jibes and casual racism of the Kiwi male at the bar; and the Norwegian nudist and his Russian wife living a minimalist and elegant life in a designer home in the bush. Then there is the non-human population: more specifically The Moose, a beast once released into the New Zealand bush but never seen except by a few untrustworthy hunters. The use of this beast as a character is perhaps Robertson’s most audacious gamble on credibility, a touch that reminds us that despite the social realism, this is a fiction after all. There are so many introduced and indigenous species, so much contrast in this bay. The diversity and potential for conflicts, cross-purposes and comical misunderstanding is tireless and Robertson’s assiduous attention to each thread of narrative crafts a satisfying development of tension and suspense.
Robertson’s novels can be reviewed in Woman’s Day or Landfall or waved at the podium at any of our literary events. Humour is a much-valued element in New Zealand culture and literature but is not always given timely recognition, as in the case of Ronald Hugh Morrieson, so let’s thank Catherine Robertson for this gift while she is still alive.
GAIL PITTAWAY is a senior lecturer in creative writing in the School of Media Arts at Wintec, Hamilton. She has published poetry, short stories and articles on teaching creative writing as well as on food history and food writing, including in the Routledge Companion to Food and Literature. As a member of the advisory board of the Australasian Association of Writing Programs, Gail has co-edited special issues of TEXT journal, and the online journal of creative writing, Meniscus.