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The Woman Problem & other prose

Sketch-Plan for the Great New Zealand Novel

page 153

Sketch-Plan for the Great New Zealand Novel

The story is about Tom Shaughnessy, son of an Irish remittance man who died fighting in an insane asylum six months before our hero was born, and a beautiful young girl of seventeen, an inmate of the Borstal institution. Tom has a childhood in which sunshine and shadow are mingled. He forms a passionate attachment for his mother, which is to dominate his life. Leaving school at the age of eighteen, after he has finished for good and all with Standard Two, Tom digs post-holes, acts as chucker-out in a tough joint, becomes a jockey but is unsuccessful owing to his shortness of stature, writes short stories, takes to shop-lifting and serves several gaol sentences (during which he makes many new friends), and in general kicks around and is kicked around. As can be seen already, Tom Shaughnessy is an ordinary, simple New Zealander with the dreams and hopes, the tastes and ambitions, of simple, ordinary people.

Disturbed by his failure to interest, or be interested by, women, Tom broods about life. He passes through a deep spiritual crisis, and seeks the advice and protection of a kindly non-conformist missioner, who has a wife and family of ten boys, all between the ages of 9 and 12. After living with them for a year Tom is amazed to discover accidentally that the wife is not really the missioner's wife, but is really a man dressed up as a woman. Feeling that the house is too crowded, he is on the point of leaving and running away to sea when, one day, the missioner's wife shoots him (the missioner), and Tom is arrested and charged with the murder. The trial is a long-drawn-out one, in which the whole gamut of human emotions is run through by the page 154lawyers. One afternoon towards the end of the third week, when things are looking black indeed for Tom Shaughnessy, news comes that the missioner's wife has committed suicide, leaving a note of confession in the form of a short autobiographical novel. The trial is abandoned at once, and Tom leaves the Court with hardly a stain on his character.

From this point onward Tom Shaughnessy really begins to get into his stride, and the story gathers emotional depth and momentum. Tom discovers accidentally that he has an hereditary disease and is going blind, and tries to shoot himself; but, since he has never had any military training, manages only to blow off the lobe of his right ear. He is nursed back to health and sanity by 'Hobson Street Hattie', a woman with a rough exterior but a heart of gold. He begins a novel, but abandons it in despair when he finds that Hattie too is working on a novel, and that there is nobody to cook the meals. We next find Tom taking a correspondence course in sheep-farming. Before many weeks have passed he catches a train and settles down to rural life, striving to save his soul and integrate himself through contact with the simplicities of Nature and Mother Earth.

War breaks out, and an old petty-officer friend in the Navy, who has just published a collection of short stories, persuades Tom to join up in order to fight against tyranny. With the war at last over, the story moves rapidly to its conclusion. The petty-officer, after a profound spiritual crisis, decides to become a missioner; and Tom Shaughnessy, unable to forget the past or to face the future alone, disguises himself as a woman and lives with the ex-petty-officer. They befriend a shy young man of Irish extraction named Shaun Tomassey, who is ambitious to become a writer. Shaun comes to live with them. And so the story ends, with every-body sadder and wiser, but looking forward bravely to the future.

This story gives an unforgettable picture of New Zealand life. But it also has a universal meaning. It is a tale of simple, ordinary people, their joys and their sorrows, their tears and their smiles. It is, as one might say, just life—but page 155life made more vivid and significant by the magic touch of Art. Above all, it gives us New Zealanders a penetrating study of us as we really are, beneath our shy exteriors.

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