Helen Watson White
Moonlight Sonata by Eileen Merriman (Black Swan/Penguin Random House New Zealand, 2019) 283 pp., $38
The strength of Moonlight Sonata is that its fictional world seems ‘utterly real’, to use the words of Paula Green reviewing Pieces of You, Merriman’s debut novel, just a few years ago. This is the award-winning writer’s first adult novel, after successful young-adult stories Pieces of You, Catch Me When You Fall and Invisibly Breathing. Her fourth book in three years, Moonlight Sonata was also the second novel she published in a single year, 2019.
An Auckland scientist (consultant haematologist) in her day-job, Merriman observes with an acutely perceptive eye a modern extended family gathered for the southern summer. The north-of-Auckland beachside setting may be typical, even ideal, but this ‘noisy, quarrelsome’ family is not, its complex dynamic only dimly understood by its many members. On the first page we meet a threesome who appear to be splitting apart even before the story has got underway: Molly’s husband Richard is ‘already striding ahead, putting as much distance between the house and himself as possible’; their son Noah is stripping off his T-shirt before running into the sea; Molly is left alone, as she often is in this narrative, with that same sea, her mother Hazel’s house on the hill and dead snapper on the tideline. While returning to one’s family at Christmas or New Year is usually considered a positive thing, Molly compares herself to the fish skeletons picked clean by birds: ‘Coming home is like this. It strips her bare.’
The writing has something of both the density and the understatement of poetry, with close attention to things happening just out of sight, beneath the surface of experience. Old memories share space with new excitements in a carefully crafted sub-text, leaving the merest sign that they are there.
I am reminded of Barbara Anderson’s ‘I have always respected good noticers’, as the observer describes the ‘sun-hot skin’ bruised by cricket balls of Molly’s niece Lola, or the way ‘waves fizz over gravel’; outside there are ‘the heady scents of pine and petrol fumes’, inside ‘the smell of over-ripe bananas and sweaty feet’. Along with reminders of how summer keeps the senses busy, there is also a continuing play of everyday theatre in which a group of teenage cousins are beautifully delineated—by appearance (clothes, colours, haircuts) and by mode of activity and speech idiom, their eye-movements tracking loyalties away from parents and towards peers.
Among the adults, hidden resentments or bonds are also expressed in sidelong looks, in seemingly irrelevant arguments, or in selective silences charged with emotional weight. Point of view shifts between the major characters, leaving out others. Molly (but not her husband) is given extensive interior monologue; and cousins Lola and Noah, in the next generation, are each given chapters tracing their confused feelings and thoughts that now and then erupt in awkward or passionate dialogue. The book’s main relationship, however, is between Molly and her twin brother Joe, ‘the favourite uncle, the favourite brother, the favourite son’; this is one bond, on the strength of which the rope of the story depends, which is so far from typical or ideal that it cannot be expressed at all.
In flashbacks to earlier times—in all, nine different periods of her life—Molly reveals how, after an enforced childhood separation of six years, the twins’ trust in each other was all they had when their parents were waging ‘World War III’ in the family home. While Joe’s point of view is rarely articulated, Molly’s emotional life, in which Joe is a key player, is charted from childhood to her current circumstances in middle-age. In two parallel plots, while the families are all staying in the beach-house or in tents on the lawn, the writer cleverly alternates scenes from Molly’s (and Joe’s) adolescence with scenes of the young ‘kissing cousins’ navigating their way through a volatile present. There is a high degree of uncertainty about both storylines, which makes for almost unbearable suspense at times.
The sea—quixotic and dangerous yet familiar enough to dispel anxiety—is the perfect metaphor for a world where uncertainty is normal, in both present and past. When Noah receives a drubbing from his father over risking Lola’s life in (and out of) a kayak, it’s as if the sea, or fate, or life itself, is to blame. One minute the pair are cavorting in the water like the local orca, without their usual life jackets and their usual sense; the next minute the kayak has drifted away and they must swim to the nearest rocks where Lola reveals she’s ‘having a hypo’ and needs sugar to avert a diabetic coma.
As tides of risk, memory and emotion—including some ‘poisonous undercurrents’—swirl around the beach-house, there are also flurries of humour, like welcome cross-waves, defusing tension, bringing surprise and a perverse delight. Then there’s that other vast sea, the sky, Noah’s and Lola’s medium for joyful night swims: as the sky-watchers float on their backs beyond the breakers they breathe another kind of air, think other thoughts, see a world of possibility they imagine might be risk-free.
The memory of the cousins’ near-death experience at sea, however, continues to affect the course of the novel. Death is always waiting, it seems, for the two pairs—two generations—of teenage partners, who reflect each other in the double narrative. In one of the flashbacks, dated 1987 (when Molly was the age her son is now), Molly hears accidentally of her new boyfriend Matt being killed in an ‘unsurvivable’ car-crash. As she is comforted by her 17-year-old twin brother, they repeat ‘the mantra they’d been reciting since they were twelve’: ‘you’re not allowed to die before me’. The age of twelve was the time the twins were re-united, their mother Hazel having removed six-year-old Molly from the rest of the family in protest against the father’s domination and drinking.
Molly’s relationship with her mother has been permanently soured by this action of taking her away from soulmate Joe. At nineteen Molly, the only daughter and the bearer of all Hazel’s hopes, deliberately misses a crucial piano recital in rebellion against her mother, saying, ‘You can’t control me any more.’ Hazel’s attempts to organise Molly at the beach-house only serve to rake up that bitterness again. The fact that mother and daughter are still estranged is not altogether believable to me, although it’s necessary for the plot to keep Molly moving away from Hazel and towards Joe. In other words, it is necessary for Molly not to grow up to make her more like her twin, who has wandered the earth as a journalist in war-zones, determinedly single and as much of a risk-taker as ever he was in his teens.
Molly’s choices have always involved Joe, although that does not become clear till late in the piece. It is later, too, that we discover that Molly’s bond with her son Noah is the greater because of previous ‘fertility struggles’: a life-and-death issue, when she thought she could never conceive.
Despite the sense that death, life and love are all inscribed in the same indelible ink at the novel’s core, there is a dilemma of choice for many of the characters, at different times. Will Noah, for instance, break up with the girlfriend of his recent past now he’s hooked up with Lola, and how will he tell each about the other? When he kisses his younger (15-year-old) cousin, ‘she tastes of freedom, and danger, and everything that is right, and everything that is wrong’: forbidden love, as it’s called on the dust-jacket, blatantly appealing to the adolescent in us all.
Moonlight Sonata actually began as a story for young adults, and still carries with it the Romeo and Juliet ultimacy of the romantic-love genre, the idea that choosing ‘forbidden love’ means you’ve inescapably chosen pain and suffering as well. Some will enjoy this; others, I imagine, won’t have a bar of it. The notion that the lovers are being sucked away from the family and into a vortex of self-immolation may be thrilling for some, but doesn’t sit comfortably with the aspects of the novel that I most admire: its gritty realism, its generosity in accommodating human weakness, its attention to the daily necessity of survival—all in a context of a wider and deeper attachment to life. On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine any other ending because of the way it is set up from the start.
Merriman has taken the star-crossed lovers theme and doubled it, over two generations, using nature as a shifting complex of metaphors for emotional states, as Mansfield did, and Dickens before her. She has a gift for character drawing and, even more, for landscape painting. What seems ‘utterly real’ is, of course, a very clever web of fabrication that draws us into conundrums we might never have been asked to contemplate, but gives us enough faith in people’s love for one another to find a way through.
That said, I found there was just too much death at the end. The propensity of teens towards not just drama but melodrama meant my expectations of the adult characters—of their maturity and even their authenticity—were not entirely satisfied.
Dunedin writer HELEN WATSON WHITE is a former university teacher and editor who has (since 1974) published articles, short stories, poems and photographs as well as theatre, art, opera and book reviews.