The Strength of Eggshells by Kirsty Powell (Cloud Ink Press, 2019), 320pp. $29.99; Sprigs by Brannavan Gnanalingam (Lawrence & Gibson, 2020), 438pp, $30
The thread that binds these two novels is one of gender expectations within New Zealand society, and the dark side of conforming to the narrowest definitions of the roles of ‘man’ and ‘woman’. Both novels show that going against these expectations is never easy because they are most often enforced by peers, friends and family. It is one thing to be rejected by a wider faceless society, and quite another to be shunned by those you love and look up to.
Kate in Kirsty Powell’s The Strength of Eggshells resists conforming to anything that society considers feminine. Physically, she is six foot tall and strong from a life of farm work. She rides a motorcycle and, in her helmet, is often mistaken for a man, a fact that does not bother her. Emotionally, though, she is under-developed, fragile and childish; when she first appears, slouching, sullen and chewing on her ponytail, it is a surprise to learn that she is not a teenager but an adult with a fulltime job as a teacher. It seems Kate resists accepting that she is a grown-up because womanhood comes with pressure to find a partner and have children, ideas that make her ‘stick my fingers down my throat and pretend to gag’. She has been dating but is reluctant to commit further.
On her case about all of this is her flatmate Ian, who is also Ursula. The time period of this novel is not spelled out, but we can deduce that it is sometime during the early 1990s. Not surprisingly, Ursula feels it’s safer to be Ian during the week, working in a suit in IT, and herself only after hours. Kate and Ursula have been friends since their teens, but their relationship has become combative, ostensibly because Kate resents the interference of ‘bloody Ursula’ in her personal life, but in reality because Kate refuses to confront the true cause of her emotional pain: her adoption, and the fact that her mother, whom she never knew, was in a ‘nuthouse’ at the time. A source of distress since early childhood, by now this is badly affecting her own mental health. Kate’s petulance and trigger temper test our sympathies—it’s particularly hard to see how badly she treats the remarkably unflappable and generous Ursula—but depression is never conducive to being one’s best self. The most productive decision Kate makes is to find out, finally, the truth about her mother, Jane.
We are one step ahead of her, as the novel switches to Kingseat psychiatric hospital in the mid-60s and psychiatrist Dr Bean, ‘Beanstalk’, tasked with assessing Jane, who has been admitted newly pregnant and so badly burned in a house fire that she cannot speak. Beanstalk’s only insight into Jane’s mind is through the rather cryptic poetry she writes, though he struggles to decipher most of her references. Jane receives the least page-time; while we do get some sense of her character, her main function is to be a bridge between the generations on either side of her, and to give us clues about the events of the past that have led her to the hospital. These events make up her own mother Meredith’s story, which is the heart of this novel.
With sixty-odd years dividing them, the contrast between the positions of grandmother and granddaughter is stark. Where Kate has choices about her life, Meredith has none. After losing her family to the Spanish flu, Meredith spends fourteen years as unpaid caregiver and housekeeper to an aunt; when her aunt dies, her male cousin evicts her without a word of thanks. A school-friend’s letter invites her to travel up the Whanganui River to Mangapūrua, where her friend is among a few farmers struggling to build a community. It is 1932, and Meredith has no income and no prospects. The only path to any kind of financial security is marriage, and the only man available is James Stanley, whom the war has damaged physically and mentally, though the extent of the latter is not immediately obvious. But regret is a luxury Meredith cannot afford.
Reading Meredith’s chapters, I felt that Powell enjoyed researching and writing these the most. The Kate and Jane chapters occasionally have a stilted quality to them, whereas Meredith’s zip along with ease. Meredith’s story is not unfamiliar—fans of Jane Mander will recognise the themes of emotionally distant men and women fighting for independence. There are times where the drama feels overblown (the body count is high), but it is well told and satisfying to read. The unusual editorial decision to cite sources in footnotes rather than at the end does distract, but fortunately there are only a few.
Reader sympathies are likely to lie with Meredith. Jane is mostly inaccessible to us, and Kate is a tough character to warm to. Kate’s depression cannot entirely excuse her treatment of Ursula, which borders on both physical and psychological abuse, including one especially problematic scene that this reviewer can only describe as rape. There is also the disturbing admission, skirted over early on, that Kate is dating her doctor. Powell’s intention is clearly to be supportive of trans rights and against domestic violence, so it might have paid her to engage a sensitivity consultant. Even if the novel is set thirty years ago, we are reading it through today’s lens and with today’s knowledge. It is the only aspect that lets down what is otherwise a very capable and enjoyable debut.
Sprigs is Brannavan Gnanalingam’s sixth novel and, at the time of writing this review, it’s on the shortlist for the big fiction prize at the New Zealand book awards. Gnanalingam’s last novel, Sodden Downstream, made a previous short-list, but that gentle satire is quite different to his latest work, as the content warning before the first chapter makes clear. If you are upset by depictions of sexual violence, misogyny, racism and hate speech, then you’ll find Sprigs very upsetting indeed. It’s a novel that requires plenty of strong cups of tea and possibly a pillow to yell into in order to release your frustration.
The novel kicks off, literally, with a secondary-school rugby match. It’s the Prem 1 final, contested by private school St Luke’s and their arch-rivals Wellington Grammar. Pritchard, St Luke’s head boy, son of the chair of the board and captain of the first XV, delivers the pre-match pep-talk: ‘Lads. We need to win.’
Need is the right word. Because winning isn’t just about gaining a trophy or shoring up the reputation of the school. It’s not even about which players might be picked for a career in the sport, an opportunity that could change their lives. Winning goes deep into the fundamental being of all the males in the locker room: students, coaches and teachers. Winning is the pointed tip upon which their sense of self teeters, and it extends beyond the field and into every aspect of their lives. Winning—success, dominance, power—is what these males believe makes them whole and, most importantly, gains them acceptance. The alternative is to be cast out, and that is akin to death.
Clearly, this mindset doesn’t allow for emotional introspection, empathy or the slightest deviation from the pack, and we see the consequences at the after-match party, organised by the team and attended by many other teenagers, including girls from Simeon College. Priya is in Year 11 at Simeon and is ‘starting to master the half-truths that she had to tell her parents in order to maintain a social life’, but is also worried that ‘her friends are moving too fast for her’. As seems inevitable, the party does not end well for Priya but, of course, ‘the incident’ is not an ending at all; it’s the start of a prolonged ordeal. Priya is young, coloured, not rich or connected, and she is female. She has no chance of toppling the wall of men ranked in solidarity against her.
It’s effective, though hard on the reader, that Gnanalingam decides to describe the initial fallout entirely from the point of view of the males involved: the school head, staff, board and students. It’s a tour-de-force of self-interest and denial, and Gnanalingam absolutely nails how it plays out externally and in each man’s head. Not one of them gives Priya a moment’s thought. She is a problem to be solved, an irritation to be rid of, barely a human being at all. Lawyers become involved (one’s called Rupert Campbell-Black, creating a moment of cognitive dissonance for Jilly Cooper readers). The men need to win.
Then we do switch to Priya’s point of view, but there’s no relief. She is doubted by even her friends and teachers, accused of being a lying troublemaker, abused in person and on social media. Her family don’t have money for legal battles. Priya refuses to talk to the police. She is scarred physically and mentally. If it weren’t for Gnanalingam’s gift for well-timed lightness, Priya’s story would be relentlessly gruelling.
The whole novel would be unbearable if Gnanalingam were not such an able and, above all, compassionate writer. He gives a complex humanity to even the worst characters, his satire never descending into stereotype. His ability to recreate the authentic speech of young men might be helped by the fact that he was their age not that long ago, but it still requires great skill to peel back what’s said to reveal what’s implied, the code in the words, the message of acceptance or rejection into which they’re all tuned.
Compassion makes this novel so much more than a polemic against the patriarchy and the institutions that perpetuate it. These characters are very real—we know them, we might be them. We’d all like to think that, in their place, we’d do the right thing, but going up against others is a course of action only available to those who have security and means, for whom a failure would not ruin their lives. For many, winning is not possible—they would lose everything in the fight. We might be in a position to act bravely, but we cannot judge those who are not.
Yes, this novel will upset you. Yes, it will likely make you angry. But it is one of the best explorations of this subject and will make you laugh more often than you’d expect. A wonderful novel, and a truly important one.
CATHERINE ROBERTSON is a New Zealand bestselling author. In 2020 she was the CNZ/International Institute of Modern Letters Writer in Residence. Catherine reviews for the NZ Listener and is a regular guest on RNZ. She is on the board of Verb Wellington. Her latest novel is Spellbound (Penguin Random House, 2021).