This review was first published in the print edition of Landfall 243
Six by Six: Short stories by New Zealand’s best writers, ed. Bill Manhire (Victoria University Press, 2021), 560pp, $40
One day recently, when we were in the middle of a discussion about the current pandemic, perhaps the Delta surge we’d just overcome in Auckland or the projected peak of the Omicron wave, my mother’s expression turned glazed and distant and she began to describe another pandemic in another time: the polio outbreak in her childhood that closed the schools, setting her and her sisters and friends free to roam and run wild for a whole summer. And it was, she said, now she remembered it, an exceptionally long, hot summer like the drought in Auckland in 2020 and 2021, when the parks turned brown, the streams dried up, the skies every day were cloudless blue, and for her, back then, there was nothing to be done but swim and bike for miles and dream your way through another day, a gang of kids liberated from the world of school and clocks and teachers and parents, just for a time. The adults must have been fearful (infantile paralysis, the horrifying threat of the ‘iron lung’: what could be more terrifying for a parent?) but she remembered it as dreamy, idyllic, timeless, mercifully free from the tyranny of phones and computers and Zoom. No Google school, no remote learning; you could read a book under a tree, and other than that, some lessons might arrive in the mail every now and then.
Her sudden intense recall struck me on a number of fronts. It was a vivid memory of a pandemic in her lifetime (stop worrying; there’s nothing new under the sun; Covid too shall pass). It sounded so lovely (every cloud, etcetera). It gave one a tiny, no doubt irrational hope about climate change (she’s very old and she remembers an intense drought; maybe the disturbing lack of rain in Auckland is normal). And most particularly it struck me because I was reading Six by Six, the anthology of short stories by six New Zealand writers edited by Bill Manhire, and I was right in the middle of ‘The Reservoir’ by Janet Frame.
‘The days became unbearably long and hot,’ Frame wrote in ‘The Reservoir’. ‘Rumours circled the burning world. The sea was drying up, soon you could paddle or walk to Australia.’ And later, ‘The earth crackled in the early-autumn haze and still the February sun dried the world …’
The children of Frame’s story are waiting for school, but it will not start: ‘Then swiftly, suddenly, disease came to the town. Infantile Paralysis. Black headlines in the paper, listing the number of cases, the number of deaths. Children everywhere, out in the country, up north, down south, two streets away.’
And so, the children of ‘The Reservoir’ are set free to roam. They’re allowed to play along and in the creek, but the specific warning they are given each day is never to go as far as the Reservoir, which is upstream and distant and regarded as very dangerous. It comes to represent, for the children, the place of mystery they must eventually reach if they’re ever to find meaning in the adult-controlled world through which they move.
‘The Reservoir’ is a terrific narrative, one of many in this rich and vivid collection by six wildly different New Zealand writers. Each story is idiosyncratic and fascinating and an entertainment in itself, and at the same time each adds to the interesting, inevitable impression created by the grouping of six by six: you can’t help comparing, and noticing which writer might be said to outdo the next—aesthetically, stylistically, verbally.
As an impression it’s slightly unfair, in that the comparison depends on the selection of stories, which, it could be argued (as a matter of subjective taste), doesn’t necessarily represent some of the writers’ best, most shining work. This is a newly released set of the original story collection, now a VUP Classic. The stories were chosen in order to represent the range of tones and styles of each writer, also the development of talent, rather than simply picking out the greatest hits. The result is a highly entertaining and uneven mix, with undeniable classics alongside some messy mixtures of genius, charm, humour and hilarity—and the odd crashing dud.
The stories are highly visual and if, for that reason, the imaginative impression is of a gallery (this was how the collection kept representing itself to me), the most polished and complete, the most unassailably perfect, classic and transcendent works on display are the stories of Katherine Mansfield. With time as the judge, she stands apart. You can’t beat the quality of the writing, the insight, the shimmer behind the words, the wry, intelligent humour in every line and, most emphatic of all, the beauty. Aesthetically, verbally, the stories of Katherine Mansfield are beautiful—and peerless.
Mansfield comes first in the collection, followed by Frank Sargeson with his sharp wit and his acerbic asides and sly expressions of hidden violence and sexuality. His segment opens with the genius of ‘Conversation with My Uncle’. It’s all much more rugged and rough, not such a flattering selection perhaps, as if stronger stories could have been included than ‘The Undertaker’s Story’ and ‘Just Trespassing, Thanks’.
Maurice Duggan’s section starts low key with ‘A Small Story’, progresses into the languidly vivid comic genius of ‘Along Rideout Road That Summer’ and proceeds to the creaking, camp weirdness of ‘O’Leary’s Orchard’, in which old O’Leary, with gaunt humour, seduces the delectable Isobel Bernstein whose mother drives a Bentley, among other strange and random details. There’s a constant tone, hard to define, maybe a kind of blackly laughing, drunken hilarity to Duggan’s stories.
Then there’s Janet Frame, and along with ‘The Reservoir’ we get ‘Solutions’, a story that starts out with a coy tone and becomes increasingly disturbing until it turns nasty and positively upsetting; it feels horribly claustrophobic and surreal, like an insight into serious mental distress. Frame’s ‘The Bull Calf’ is a moving portrayal of a girl facing society’s prudishness and cruelty, and the sharp and witty ‘You Are Now Entering the Human Heart’ includes a very funny description of a schoolteacher’s encounter with a snake.
The best of Patricia Grace’s selected six is ‘Valley’, a rural story covering the four seasons, full of lyrical observations of nature and children, and small, poignantly beautiful moments. There’s a strong story about birth, ‘Between Earth and Sky’, and the charming ‘Waimarie’, in which an old woman goes to a tangi.
Grace has successfully embraced the vernacular, sometimes so successfully and thoroughly it becomes a challenge to the inner ear. This is from ‘Kahawai’:
It’s only us who don’t go. Sometimes. Or don’t get up. Right? Because of hangovers, or laziness or going somewhere else. Or from not being back from somewhere. Only us have sickies. Right? But anyway … Good. Good on yous. Kahawai, yum. Make some bread too. Yahoo.
And this from Grace’s ‘The Wall’, about a group of men building a wall:
We all scrapped over which rock. That one. Nah. Ha, ha, haw, haw, like that. They try them out to see which one. A lot of times my rock was the good one, fitted in just right, ha, ha, ha, hee, hee, get stuffed. Hee, hee, ha, ha. Haw, haw, haw. It was only easy after a while.
The story goes on and on in that vein. It raises the memory of Martin Amis’s iconoclastic comment about a passage in one of Joan Didion’s classic works: ‘I find this style of writing as resonant as a pop-gun.’
Owen Marshall has some excellent stories in the collection, especially ‘A Day With Yesterman’, in which he gives us the thoroughly likeable character of Chatterton, a man making the best of a very good day. It’s a story with Marshall’s characteristic laconic charm and good-natured humour, even a kind of sweetness. ‘A Poet’s Dream of Amazons’, the tragic story of a poet who lies dying in his parents’ laundry, is really funny, with none of the darkness and violence running through some of Marshall’s work.
Reviewers sometimes advise cosily of books like Six by Six: ‘Enjoy dipping in and out. Read a story here and there. Any order will do.’ I would say this: Do not dip in and out. Read each writer’s six stories strictly in order. Do not stop until you’ve finished. Enjoy each writer’s work for its idiosyncratic strangeness, its strengths and weaknesses. When you’ve finished the whole book, compare the six, openly, generously, ruthlessly. Enjoy the judgements you come to. Find a whole extra layer of interest in the comparisons you’re able to make.
CHARLOTTE GRIMSHAW is the author of ten works of fiction, including novels The Night Book and Soon, which have been made into the TV mini-series The Bad Seed. She has been shortlisted for or won many accolades, including the Montana Medal for Book of the Year and is an award-winning reviewer and columnist. Her bestselling memoir, The Mirror Book, was published in 2021.