Rotoroa by Amy Head (Victoria University Press, 2018), 248 pp., $30
Amy Head’s first novel Rotoroa is at times beguiling and vivid in its evocation of New Zealand’s repressed social milieu after World War II. Through the eyes and occasionally the consciousness of several main characters, Head traces undercurrents of change toward more honesty and openness.
The author attended Wellington’s International Institute of Modern Letters, where she earned an MA in creative writing in 2010. That dissertation became her first work, Tough, a 130-page collection of short stories published in 2013 by Victoria University Press. It won the Hubert Church Best First Book Award for Fiction in 2014, and the following year Creative New Zealand awarded Head $15,000 for the writing of a novel, which is presumably this one, which is twice the length of the first book. On the cover is a quote from the director of the IIML that is expanded on the back-cover blurb by two sentences, and thereby neatly frames the book.
Vividness strikes early on: ‘Lorna focused instead on the drops of water jittering and squirming on the windows.’ Another example: ‘Their driveway was a flash past in a stranger’s journey.’ And again: ‘It had been so long since she’d had herself to herself, it was hard to remember who she was before.’ There are other haiku-like bursts.
The leading characters head separately toward Rotoroa Island, a Salvation Army sanatorium for male alcoholics where the characters do not so much interconnect as intersect. The unnumbered chapters rotate between and are named for Lorna, Katherine and Jim, each the focus of most events and thoughts in their chapter.
Lorna evolves until, at the end of the book, she even experiences brief elation. She is part of a nuclear family, with son Isaac and husband Paul who is not Isaac’s father. A developing awareness and intimacy between the couple and toward the young child are credible and sometimes tender. Lorna and her parents adopted Mormonism and then, after a chance meeting in the street, joined the Salvation Army, although neither faith is explored in any depth. She is locked up in herself and diffident, like most of the other characters. Preparing to give a sermon in the chapel, she notices Jim and wonders if there is ‘calm in his mind, in the eye of his own storm’. Paul, whose father is an alcoholic (Lorna’s father suffers from periodic PTSD due to his war service), is a Sallie who for most of the book wears dark glasses due to an accident to his eyes; he looks like an inadvertent hipster. He gradually dispenses with the glasses, perhaps due to growing confidence. This is one of the few examples in the book where the author dangles before the reader a sign verging on a symbol, excepting of course the paraphernalia of encroaching Americanisation.
Katherine is based on an actual person: Elsie K. Morton, a New Zealand journalist born Katherine Elizabeth Morton, who died in 1968 at the age of 83. She had a late success with her non-fiction book about a settler family on the Kermadec Islands: The Crusoes of Sunday Island, published in 1957. She is the only character who is historical and perhaps is meant to add verisimilitude. Head portrays her as a dogged prattler of commonplaces: ‘Against their twangy accents her vowels were dull and unvarnished. “New Zealand’s main industry is agriculture […] we were settled by Europeans not much more than a hundred years ago.” She seems more an old-fashioned ‘Elsie’ than a modern ‘Katherine’. But she does show some signs of development, arguing for instance with her newspaper editor that she wants to write an article focusing on the wives of the Rotoroa Island alcoholics: ‘The women have more insight. They were sober, you see, the wives. They were in a better position to observe. The men were drunk.’
Earlier in the novel, on a birdwatching tour of a bayou in the southern USA where alligators prowl, the guide asks Katherine about New Zealand’s natural predators, to which she retorts: ‘None, not that threaten people … because we’re so isolated.’ Looking through her binoculars, she sees a man (who the reader is led to presume is white) ‘lifting a Negro man from his shoulders. She almost blurted out a shocked reaction, then she didn’t.’ This is an ambiguous scene that implies cruelty and perhaps murder. Katherine walks closer to take a photograph that includes a woman: ‘People would later interpret the woman’s expression as hostile, but Katherine knew she was just surprised.’ Katherine is oblivious to what is really going on, but the author alerts us to her ignorance and obtuseness. Head often hovers besides her characters, and sometimes her sudden authorial observations jar. The characters are not embodied enough in their own actions and speech to come alive, but have to be repeatedly defined.
As with the treatment of other themes, race and racism are hinted at rather than explored. Katherine’s lack of discernment in the bayou is more pronounced than Lorna and Paul’s hesitant realisation about Isaac’s ethnicity (we are drip-fed the implication that Lorna’s Mormon missionary seducer was partly African-American). Paul asks Lorna: ‘Have you thought about whether you’ll tell [Isaac] one day?’ Earlier, Head alludes to the child’s crinkly hair.
Katherine the reporter is so closed off physically from other people she jumps at a touch. While at the island she finds brief transcendence when observing orcas: she becomes ‘a pair of eyes, detached from any aches or slights’. The visual as a mode of both knowledge and obfuscation is an embryonic theme in the novel, especially focused on Katherine, who searches for pictures and who also endeavours to communicate through them, usually only as illustrations, however, rather than as insights into the prejudices of the period.
Reading into the book can be a process of longueurs, of the exposition of material gathered from strenuous research (as detailed in the Acknowledgements section). There are set pieces such as an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting replete with rote-like dialogue (‘My name’s Hemi and I’m an alcoholic’ / ‘Hi Hemi.’ / ‘I’ve been here two weeks …’); a quiz during a picnic where questions are asked like ‘What was the Big Bopper’s real name?’; interviews with Salvation Army officers, doctors and a newspaper editor, who are dull and officious; and a slide show that Katherine conducts in the USA where in answer to the question, ‘Could we have a look at your natives with their huts again?’ she responds with a further slide and the comment, ‘The Māori give wonderful cultural performances. They call their songs waiata.’
Head sprinkles her novel with the names of celebrities of the era, such as Selwyn Toogood, Elvis Presley and Billy Graham; media such as 1YA, Free Lance and Pictorial Parade; brand names such as Remington shaver and DB; and snatches of radio commercials and soap operas. In one concentrated effort at period-setting, the inmates of a resthome are described as having ‘seen the beginnings of street lights and electricity, gramophones and radio broadcasts. Six monarchs. Two world wars. They were time travellers.’
Jim, the third member of the rotating trinity of characters, is an alcoholic, an irredeemable larrikin. He is the tenuous link between many of the other characters who investigate, incarcerate, indoctrinate, recuperate or irritate him. A collage of stylistic modes circles his figure without evoking any individual presence. Jim goes fishing by himself in one chapter, but although there is fine writing the person is not illuminated; he seems only an accumulation of traits. (Head observes elsewhere that ‘Jim’s father [was] an accumulation of wiles when he got old.’) Jim and his fellow alcoholics are almost always portrayed as caricatures: ‘they start to feel the constriction of the four walls, nowhere to go, no car to fill with booze and drive away, or women to chase …’ The authorial voice declaims that the alcoholics are ‘all used to tuning out reality as though it’s radio static […] they stop being individuals with pasts and problems, and cross over into grouphood, here and now and parsnip wine.’ Head’s portrayal of them in the novel reveals its imaginative limits – their reality is beyond its scope.
Does Rotoroa succeed as a novel? The fragmentariness of material is camouflaged by an impressionistic narrative in which characters sometimes appear to be wheeled on and off the stages of a socio-cultural thesis. Jim’s wife appears early on without being revealed as his wife, only to be forgotten until the later part of the book when she reappears to fill in various gaps. Other threads connecting characters are also loose or frayed. Though this lack of connection is perhaps meant to signify a repressed people and society, in my opinion it really signifies a lack of the sustained creative drive that is necessary in order to weld disparate elements into a work of art. Nevertheless, there are insightful details to this book, and an orchestrated structure of alternating scenes that are sometimes boldly montage-like and entertaining, with characters who, though not very memorable, are often presented compassionately.
DENIS HAROLD lives near Dunedin and has written several previous reviews for Landfall Review Online.