The Children’s Pond, by Tina Shaw (Pointer Press, 2014), 275 pp., $29.99
As with any colonial and post-colonial literature, the sense of place is arguably the dominant feature of New Zealand writing. Human ease and unease within a landscape is our grand theme. One of the most cited examples is the central incident of John Mulgan’s 1939 Man Alone, where the protagonist, Johnson, flees to the Rangipō Desert of the North Island’s volcanic plateau after an accidental manslaughter. It is ‘a legend-haunted country, dreaded by the Maoris’, ‘lifeless’, ‘barren and desolate’ with low scrub and pumice drifts. When a sudden storm whips up, Johnson doggedly continues forward, ‘his head down, barely seeing the ground beneath his feet’, until he comes to ‘what he knew must be the heart of it all’, somewhere where he feels himself ‘to be caught in something wild and furious and stronger than himself’.
Tina Shaw’s most recent novel, The Children’s Pond, takes as its setting the northern edge of the volcanic barrens described by Mulgan, where the town of Tūrangi was built in the mid-1960s to accommodate workers of the Tongariro hydro-electric power schemes and their families. Jessica Pollard’s son Rueben is doing time at the nearby Rangipo Prison. Jessica has left Auckland and taken a job as a motel receptionist and manager to be near her only child for the duration of his two-year sentence. This is not the atavistic landscape of Mulgan. It is has been framed for use and, with the departure of the great near-socialist construction projects, is now ostensibly a place of tourism and leisure, skiing and trout-fishing, but with wide divisions between wealth and poverty.
This is a landscape in the aftermath. Shaw’s eye is accurate: a town possessing half the population it had 50 years before, the tree plantings for civic projects which will be vandalised before the next morning, the pools of trapped trout at the local trout centre where amateurs can ‘fish’ for a guaranteed catch, and a neglected shopping mall where the financially stable can buy wine and Vogel’s bread while the drugged and unemployed shoplift Coca-Cola and chocolate.
The Lodge motel, Jessica’s place of work, is a wincing depiction of thin-walled, beige and mustard temporary accommodation, with obligatory local references in its décor: the paintings of river scenes and trout, and cottages named after fishing-flies. Jessica’s visits to Rangipo Prison convey the awkwardness of enforced and clocked encounters amidst penal architecture, with plastic chairs around squared arrangements of tables, where resentment and intimacy mix uneasily under the watchful eye of guards.
Shaw’s sentences are succinct, the observations just as sharp:
Listening to the absence of noise. No traffic, no distant sirens, no police chopper circling overhead, no trains rattling along the Western Line. It was unnerving, your own thoughts too loud, sound of your own breathing, leaves shaking in a nearby tree. How did people stand it (p. 17–18).
As Jessica orientates herself within the landscape, Shaw also positions the reader in relation to the past. Jessica carries the usual baggage of upbringing and previous personal relationships, but she also has her own secrets, including a short but terrifying stint in a reform unit during her adolescence. The author paces the revelations naturally, in a rhythm that accords with Jessica’s explorations of her new environment. Just as the Māori used to cross the Rangipō Desert with head-dresses of leaves constructed so they could only see forward to avoid being lured from their path by the spirit-presences of the place, so too Jessica wilfully refuses to see what lies around her, particularly as it relates to her own life. The Children’s Pond becomes a novel of gradual revelation, of blindness and seeing, and ultimately of personal discovery. It is focused on the act of connecting disparate pieces of information.
Tina Shaw’s characters are fully described and situated. Seemingly complaisant David Brennan and his brittle wife Hayley operate the motel where Jessica works. David’s father Paul, a semi-retired doctor and former psychologist, lives in a nearby house. Through a fellow-worker at the motel, Jessica meets the handsome Danyon Tawhiti, a Māori lawyer now based in Sydney who is back for a family visit. It’s a gradual opening out of a localised social world with its strata and links and, more importantly, its history.
Shaw is always more than she seems as a novelist, going the extra distance. An attentive reader will find the novel filled with exactitude: real houses are identifiable, views precisely described, and trout pools those on river maps. Complex quandaries of individual lives are revealed with spare precision as they mesh with each other. The characters are individual without being caricatures and, while the novel feels complete, each of them has a personal story which will continue beyond the final words.
The Children’s Pond is a story of murder, sexual transgression and power. As Jessica settles into the rhythms of a small town and the spark of a sudden affair, the body of Danyon Tawhiti’s sister Chantelle is found face-down in the novel’s eponymous trout-pond. Jessica has also been reminded of events that happened in the reform unit in her adolescence and begins to put two and two together. Her past has followed her from Auckland to Taupō despite her optimistic blinkers. In a terrifying and voyeuristic sequence, Jessica is forced to confront and reveal the origin of her fears:
Jessica shoved her hands in her jacket pockets. Her breath fogged on the air. Felt the charge in being a voyeur, the power. He would have no idea she was out here watching him. She could do anything. Could sight a rifle and shoot him through the window. She smiled thinly (p. 179).
Yet Shaw’s skill in this progression isn’t entirely pitch-perfect. The balance of knowledge between writer and reader is eked out, and this rationing of truth can sometimes feel contrived, as if the reader is being played like a fish on a hook. This is a minor reservation, however. The stripping-away of layers is integral to the book’s progression. The author does not descend into the Gothic or the blood-and-splatter of many of her peers. At its heart, The Children’s Pool is a novel of psychological suspense backed by a sound realism that concerns a woman alone in a country of mystery, where many of the blurs and concealments emanate from her own view of things.
One of the dominant features of the novel is its evocation of trout fishing, the major tourist industry of the southern Taupō lake and rivers. By winning a casually taken raffle Jessica receives a free lesson and, despite herself, discovers an interest in the sport: its art, techniques, the tied flies and the knacks of casting. Shaw charts this gradual involvement with attention and appreciation. It provides a strong and psychologically interesting secondary strand to The Children’s Pond.
The cold snow-fed river waters, the behaviours of trout and the strategies used to hook them bring added value to the novel, giving an enriching dimensionality and a textured thickness whose impact cannot be underestimated. It is a fascinating demonstration of the adage that an apparently casual literary layer can serve to take a novel from the ordinary to the fascinating, and where a sense of place haunts the foregrounded human drama with complimentary echoes.
Despite Tina Shaw’s steady and successful career, the publication of The Children’s Pool has not been backed by a traditional publisher and its resources. The Pointer Press is Shaw’s own imprint, and this is a clear marker of the decline of the great publishing conglomerates as they founder on their market fears in the face of changed formats and purchasing patterns. It is their missed opportunity. The Children’s Pool seems perfectly tailored for both a New Zealand and international crime fiction market; it is easy to envisage it as a movie or a television drama, filled with the visual allure of its background scenery and the resonances of a landscape barely subjugated to human will.
DAVID HERKT is a TV director/researcher whose work has been awarded two Qantas Film and Television Awards for documentary. He has been a finalist in both the 2013 Sunday Star-Times Short Story Competition and the 2014 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.