The Red Queen by Gemma Bowker-Wright (Victoria University Press, 2014), 220 pp., $30
The Red Queen, an accomplished if imperfect collection of short stories from debut author Gemma Bowker-Wright, is at its best when it manages to transcend allegory to reveal rounded characters manoeuvring through compelling and tensely charged situations. At its most disappointing, however, the metaphor takes over, leaving stories that feel more like exercises in figurative writing than pieces devised for the reader’s enjoyment.
This is not to suggest, of course, that there is anything wrong with metaphor in general, nor with its specific deployment here. Indeed, Bowker-Wright, a graduate of Victoria University’s MSc programme as well as the MA in Modern Letters programme, has wrapped her entire first collection in an intriguing and largely successful central allegory. The opening and title story sets this up with the tale of three final-year Evolution students grappling with the uncertainty of their futures and their parallel with the evolutionary theory of the Red Queen, so named after the Alice in Wonderland character and her line: ‘It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.’
From here on out, Bowker-Wright’s characters will be saddled with that same preoccupation. Faced with transitional moments in their lives (more often forced upon them than courted), their efforts to advance appear futile. They are, it seems, running hard to keep in the same place. Many are young – students, recent graduates, DINKY couples – but older characters feature too. One of the collection’s best stories, its closing piece, ‘Katherine’, is the gently heart-breaking tale of a middle-aged man whose wife is slipping away into Alzheimer’s disease. Like most of the stories, this one carries its own fundamental science-based metaphor, that of time: evolutionary time (David, the husband from whose perspective the story is told, is a teacher of the subject at Vic); calendar time; clock time; and characters’ lateness or earliness remarked upon at various intervals. But ‘Katherine’ does not labour under this symbolism. Narrative and characters remain very much at the forefront; the once-wild woman whose grip on reality is slowly melting from her, as seen by the milder husband who, despite his passion for his wife, perhaps never entirely understood her, reverberates beyond the page.
The story’s success ultimately lies – as arguably does that of any work of fiction – in its ability to draw the reader into an emotional engagement. Not every piece in this collection manages it.
On the level of mechanics, Bowker-Wright is a sure-footed creator of confident prose. Her style is an agreeable mix of spare, straightforward sentences and surprising, frequently beautiful simile. One character ‘collected stories the way some people collected old coins, storing them up to show later, fingering the shiny surfaces and noticing the tiny imperfections, the bits that made them real’. Another ‘lays down facts in a row, like tiny dominos’. Again, the figurative writing at its best helps to bring characters to life, though occasionally an editorial lapse allows a less fully thought-out simile to sneak through. It is unlikely, for example, that the kiss of a lover with whom the protagonist is having a passionate extramarital affair would feel ‘like the feathers of a bird’.
Simile wrapped in metaphor, story after story. And those that are good really are excellent, as befits a writer who has won both the Sunday Star-Times Short Story Award and the BNZ Katherine Mansfield Competition for Short Fiction. Alongside ‘Katherine’, standouts include ‘Back to the Sea’, in which a young girl’s education at the knee of her senile great-grandmother is illuminated by scientific tales of lifeforms that evolved from water to land, and mythical ones of creatures that move from land to water; and ‘Weather’, which sees a meteorologist struggle to apply the soothing rationality that exists in her professional field to the vagrancies of personal life. The natural world features heavily in many stories, as does Wellington and its curious, undulating geography, situating The Red Queen firmly within a New Zealand that is close to and engaged with its flora, fauna and ecological history (and giving this expatriated reviewer more than one stab of homesickness: the depictions of Wellington, Bowker-Wright’s adopted home, are spot on, from the layout of the streets to the particularities of a student flat in ‘one of those old, neglected Wellington houses that had been worn down by the wind’, where ‘turquoise mould crept across the back of the cupboards’).
Unfortunately, however, other stories become lost in their own symbolism, working so hard to construct and maintain metaphor that empathetic characters and plot are casualties of the process. ‘Rock Formations’, for instance, diligently sets up the contrast between the narrator’s husband, a rational glaciologist, and her lover, a landscape painter. In the story, the lover recklessly takes her on a poorly planned skiing trip to Ruapehu, ‘which sticks up like a flashing beacon, attracting clouds like moths to a naked flame’, while the husband skis two weeks a year in the South Island ‘where the weather is more settled’. The juxtaposition is clear, but the male characters fail to exceed the status of cardboard cut-out. Despite the differences between the two men, the narrator’s motivations for entering into the affair are unclear, her own backstory about her parents’ divorce a disappointingly unsubtle excuse for her inability to leave her own marriage.
‘Rock Formations’ isn’t the only story to descend into soapiness. In ‘Endangered’ a dramatic reveal is, once again, an overplay of the author’s hand where character development is concerned, while the protagonist’s final emotions in ‘Breathing Underwater’, albeit a tidy end to the story, seem baffling in the face of his previous thoughts and actions. These stories, and a few others, would be more successful if character and plot had driven metaphor, rather than, as it seems, the other way around.
This insistence on form also lends the collection a solemnity that is not always welcome. While Bowker-Wright certainly has no ambition to write comic stories, and fair enough, there are several moments that lend themselves to a slice of humour that, if explored, would detract from the whiff of pretention that hangs threateningly over the book. Early in ‘Cowboy’, for example, the main character speaks to his sister on the phone at her university hostel. In the background he hears snatches of other students’ conversations; the words that float through are ‘feta’ and ‘genocide’. It’s a lovely little detail, and Bowker-Wright is surely not unaware of its potential. But at the same time as she sets up the joke, she backs away from it, seemingly unwilling to risk detracting from the surrounding prose. This is unfortunate: a collection of such sober themes and dissatisfied characters would benefit from the occasional tonal upswing. The Red Queen is a tightly-wound volume that could do with some relaxing.
Bowker-Wright’s next project is sure to be a work of longer fiction. Her strength in style, pacing, structure and characterisation bode well for such a venture. Hopefully the next book will also demonstrate a new skill: the confidence to put narrative at the forefront and let it lead the analogy, rather than the other way around; to relax into her talent and let the writing shine. If so, it will be a book I will be eager to read.
EMILY BROOKES is a graduate of Victoria University of Wellington and a former editor of Salient. Her reviews have appeared in the Dominion Post, the Listener and the Times Literary Supplement. She currently lives and works in Paris.