Hokitika Town, by Charlotte Randall (Penguin Books, 2011, $30)
Hokitika Town, by Charlotte Randall (Penguin Books, 2011, $30)
It’s a long time since I read a novel where the narrative voice is the outstanding and most memorable feature, perhaps even the whole point of the literary enterprise. Charlotte Randall has created a likeable, though at times obtuse, first-person narrator, a Maori boy, making his way solo in the West Coast gold rush, like a child in a story by Charles Dickens. (Hokitika Town is subtitled ‘Life as a West Coast coin boy’. Who or what was a ‘coin boy’, I wondered – a child who dived for coins under a Rotorua bridge, perhaps? Wrong. Halfie, our narrator, doesn’t dive but can see the benefits of currency in the Pakeha world and goes after it in ways that are all his own.)
Charlotte Randall is an adventurous writer, not afraid to take on ambitious projects. Her second novel, The Curative (2000), featured William Lonsdale, as sane as the day is long, but incarcerated in London’s notorious Bedlam asylum in the early nineteenth century and undergoing horrendous cures for lunacy. It was an imaginative tour de force, winning considerable acclaim in New Zealand and overseas.
Subsequent novels have proved to be unpredictable in subject matter and scope: a retelling of the Faust story set in the world of professional tennis (Within the Kiss) and then a work that traced a present-day Petone family back to 1650s Oxford (What Happen Then, Mr Bones?). Hokitika Town, Randall’s sixth novel, starts as it means to go on:
I never seen nothing like this. Papa say whitey do things different from us, but he dint say how. Now I see it with my own eyes. Whitey’s ships is so big they choking up the river. Them ships got poles big as kauri trees and the poles got cloaks hanging off them. Mebee no one believe that back home, but I swear – whitey’s ships wear clothings.
The author uses Halfie’s narrative as expressed in his ever-improving ‘pidgin’ English to carry the story and to flesh out his personality. The words of other more articulate characters are written conventionally. Thus, while Ludovic says, ‘Sad? I’m not sad. I’m melancholic’, narrator Halfie writes ‘I melon cow lick.’
This use of language is inventive but presents its own challenges and irritations, especially when combined with a naive, often blundering, child-narrator, a big cast of characters (many endowed with given names and nicknames of Halfie’s invention), a frantic pace and an episodic structure. I didn’t always know what was going on and I felt uneasy at times. Was I laughing at Halfie or with him? Was Randall creating a kind of ‘Uncle Tom’ by attributing limited and idiosyncratic English to her protagonist? How would the Maori reader feel? (This reviewer was perhaps too squeamish.)
At first the writing style is an obstruction but the reader adapts and is soon powering through the streets of Hokitika and the cut-over bush with Halfie and the cast of eccentrics, as the pace of events quickens. There’s a lot going on, but it’s sometimes hard to see the wood for the trees.
The question that kept raising its head was ‘why’?
Halfie is always tearing off to earn a coin or avert a disaster, thereby creating several more, and we are with him one hundred-per-cent because he is a uniquely engaging protagonist. His broader motivation, however, remains mysterious. Why has he turned his back on his Maori ways and thrown in his lot with a bunch of such unattractive characters? Why does he stay with the alcoholic Ludovic, cleaning up vomit and keeping the hut tidy? Why does he care so much about the fate of Violet’s unborn child?
What distinguishes this novel also limits it. An articulate narrator might provide more hints for the reader. As it is, we are left to wonder. Even some ‘facts’ of this fiction remain blurry. Is Fortunatus a philanthropist or paedophile? It matters, surely?
While fragments of Halfie’s past emerge from time to time, they are not easy to grasp or put together in a coherent picture. His present tense is more compelling – the urge or the necessity to earn a few coins, to fill his belly and have a roof over his head in wet Westland, to be true to his friends and to outwit his enemies. Halfie is cunning enough to take matters into his own hands, often with unintended and calamitous results. He has our sympathy but he’s no angel: he tells lies, gets drunk on beer and high on painkillers. How old is he, I found myself wondering. Old enough to fall in love, apparently.
What drives the novel forwards? In some sense it’s Violet’s pregnancy that creates a time frame around which life surges. Whatever else happens, her belly is expanding and this is bound to cause trouble. Violet, a skivvy at the Bathsheba hotel, has befriended Halfie, helping him with his English and explaining the politics of Hokitika. She imagines herself to be more worldly-wise than her protégé, but is soon a girl in trouble with no one to lean on but Halfie. He can see what she can’t: that it will all end in tears. I found the episode of her giving birth less than plausible. Wouldn’t she seek out an older woman to assist her rather than a lad she already has grave doubts about?
The novel has drama that always threatens to boil over into melodrama in the Wild West tradition. There is One Eye and his gang versus the Gold Escort; parties, balls, and ‘bunfights’ at the Bathsheba pub; and Griffith’s messy demise. More rounded and satisfying characters include alcoholic Ludovic, the pious ‘philosopher’, and his nemesis – Kaspar Schmidt, atheist and free-thinker. Needless to say, their ideological disputes are largely lost on Halfie.
Some characters – the publican and his wife, for instance, who seem grotesquely unsympathetic in the first half of the novel – mellow into humanity as the story goes on. (Mr Flewelling used to confine his wife in a drugged state in her bedroom.) Towards the novel’s end there arises a ‘happy families’ atmosphere that is heart-warming but seems at odds with what has gone before.
Still, this is a novel with heart and the reader can only rejoice that Violet’s baby brings out the best in people. Halfie has turned things around. Randall has created a character who may baffle the reader, but there is no doubt that he engages our sympathy. In the end, wanting to be known by his Maori name Tiwakawaka, he embarks on a new adventure with a more purposeful and rejuvenated Ludovic:
Ludo take my shoulders and turn me to look at him. He put a palm on each of my cheeks. They rilly cold. Then he say I a boy that bring sunshine to his soul.
CHRISTINE JOHNSTON is a Dunedin writer. She has written novels, short stories and essays.