Helen Watson White
Passing Through by Coral Atkinson (Dancing Tuatara, 2014), 345 pp., $34.95
Coral Atkinson’s third historical novel, Passing Through, makes a good holiday read with its many-sided plot, interesting and well-defined characters, and its feeling for the troubled yet reckless mood here following World War I.
The war itself is described as it was experienced by English twins, Jethro (Ro) and Hamish Miller, who leave their uncle’s business in Johannesburg as things are ‘hotting up’ in Europe: ‘If there’s a war,’ they agree, ‘we don’t want to miss it.’
The two, seemingly in everything together, return home to England in time to join up at Portsmouth and get commissioned as sub-lieutenants in the New Forest Rifles. Their first autumn in action means: ‘double-decker London buses carrying supplies and the wounded, trundling between French fields, with their signs still incongruously saying Crystal Palace, Waterloo, Victoria’; locals lining the streets ‘shouting “Ip Ip Wherray” and offering fruit and cakes as the British passed; the endless moving about, the packing and unpacking, the scrounging for food and billets for themselves and their men – haggling, lying, pilfering. Ro and Hamish quickly discovered the army suited them.’
The ‘haggling, lying, pilfering’ – rather than the ‘fruit and cakes’ – are close to the postwar experience of another of the book’s major characters. Harry Jackson is the fearful and dishevelled stranger we meet hiding in a disused outhouse in Lyttelton: a shell-shocked survivor whose memories of ‘real rough types’ and the bullying of ‘anyone who was smaller or weaker’, added to the ghastly experience of trench warfare, sent him running as far away as possible – to the colonies – after the war.
Harry’s honesty about his past is contrasted with Ro Miller’s ‘lying’. As well as deliberately misrepresenting events in his life, Ro spends his energies conning people into believing they hear the voices of the dead in séances set up to provide him with an income when his officer days are over.
Connecting the two very different Englishmen, Ro and Harry, is the New Zealander Louisa, a widowed ex-nurse whose daughter finds Harry hiding in the back garden, and with whom Ro attempts to cultivate a (pecuniary) friendship when Louisa attends a séance at Ro’s Sunday Circle. While Louisa can tell her own horror stories of the war, Ro’s main route to her sympathy is through the pretence that he can put her in touch with her dead husband Teddy, whom she met at the front, and who fathered her daughter Poppy before dying, like so many others, in his prime.
Ro and The Circle bring together two women as different as the two soldiers. While fishing for the (comparatively) well-to-do Louisa, Ro keeps a bed-partner in the youthful shape of Nan McDonald, his chief asset in the spiritualist enterprise. Since Nan can in reality both see and hear spirits who have ‘crossed over’, and tell the truth of the future as well as the past, she becomes indispensable to him. We discover how compromised she feels in this role, however, when the writer gives this working-class character – used to hardship even without the extra deprivations caused by war – an inner life, a conscience, and a strong backbone.
When Nan leaves Ro’s bed and business in disgust at his experiments in staging the illusion of ectoplasm, Ro quickly finds a replacement. Gwen Morrison becomes Madame Zuleika the Psychic Marvel; but because she cannot hear or mediate spirits like Nan, she also deserts him when their trickery is exposed.
It is Harry, living with Louisa and Poppy in her Lyttelton boarding house and working as a tally clerk at the wharves, who achieves the exposure of Ro’s charlatanism. Judging Ro to be a rival for Louisa’s affections makes Harry more furious than a mentally healthy male might be. His rage is fuelled by memories of the horrors he endured in the wasteland of the trenches, at the hands of Ro’s officer class. In the present, memories of his abject subjugation in war are contrasted with his growing ability to love and support Louisa, and with Ro’s choice to do the opposite: to exploit her, as he did all the widows of the men with whom he served. Even Hamish’s wife Vera, his sister-in-law, was to Ro just ‘a job needing to be done’ – or done over.
As I try and describe this supremely unlikeable character, I realise he is best described through the women’s eyes, both in the attraction he holds for them, and its opposite. This is where the book diverges from the long line of romantic novels about men in uniform, in depth and in detail:
[Nan] wasn’t in love with Ro, or at least she didn’t think so. There was certainly none of the exalted feeling that women and girls in magazines talked about as if their state was some marvellous accident, like snagging the heel of your shoe in a tram track and spying a five-pound note when you tumbled onto the street. What Nan felt about Ro was more like she’d swallowed him whole – she’d done this once with a hard-boiled egg, to see if she could, and had nearly choked. She felt possessed by the man; aware of him all the time.
There’s much more to Nan than her relationship with this odious conman. We follow her instincts on a trail to find her missing father, Gus, and nurse him in his final illness in the cave-houses of Christchurch folklore, on the wild northeast coast. Nan has inherited her gift for second-sight from Gus, as well as a close connection to nature effectively conveyed.
There’s more to Louisa, too, than her romantic liaison with Ro, which gains ground only because he reminds her of her lost husband. As the author takes us into that seam of her past, we realise there is no comparison between these two officers, even before we discover that Ro promoted himself to major.
For me there was a suspicion of over-writing in regard to Teddy’s integrity and the authenticity of the story. In one early scene, the nurse Louisa and her future husband converse over the unconscious form of Lieutenant Barnett. When Teddy answers her question whether he knew the man, his speech is (realistically) tentative: ‘I’ve known Malcolm all my life, though he’s younger. And now …’ His anger then erupts in a stagey speech that summarises all the effects of World War I: ‘It’s as though everything you grew up with, took for granted and looked forward to, is being smashed and broken and obliterated by this bloody war.’
There are other signs of a heavy authorial hand. In her first-ever future vision, at age ‘eight or nine’, Nan sees not only that a woman has ‘short, loose hair and wore a dress that showed her legs from the knee down’, but a notice spelling out ‘Christchurch Community Vegetable Garden 1941. Doing your bit to win the War.’
Despite the wordiness of the story, it did occur to me it would make a good film. Atkinson gives a believable, filmic impression of Nan’s first ‘seeing’:
Suddenly it was [as] if she were crying. Or looking at the falling water on the fish shop window; the light became liquid and everything started to curdle together, the oatmeal sky bleeding into the grass and the shed’s old paint running into the ground.
It seems the special effects so characteristic of contemporary films have started to affect the imaginative workings of this fiction writer.
Most of the writing is as vivid as this, and draws you into local, felt experiences. I know that aficionados of historical fiction love every bit of detail they can get, and they aren’t going to be disappointed by this richly painted canvas. As Nan scrambles back into the house after her vision, the reader is carried along by the sense of shock felt in the here and now: ‘Shaking, she threw herself into the coats, bits of velvet curtains and old rugs – her bed under the stairs – and pulled the old horse blanket over her head. She lay there, tense with fright, smelling the comforting earth reek of long-dead horses.’
When Nan comes across some workmen building stone cairns to the fallen, her present life in this particular place is joined in a personal tribute to the ‘sons of Sumner’ – ‘boys who had sailed driftwood boats in rock pools, splashed each other in the waves, played kick the can, bar the gate and piggyback fights on the beach, sent across the world to die’.
HELEN WATSON WHITE is a Dunedin-based editor, writer, reviewer and theatre critic.