The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965
Something to Say
Something to Say. But when all this is admitted, there remains the fact that Sylvia Ashton-Warner has something to say. The novel is about conversion, among other things. "Saints should be sinners," reflects Germaine. The Reverend Guymer cannot, therefore, be a saint, because he is too obsessed with his role as prophet to understand sin or suffering when it is before his eyes. When Germaine appeals to him for help, he rejects her. Perhaps, then, in reverse, a sinner can be a saint? Germaine, the worshipper of Baal, has never felt stirring within her the "sparkling insight" which others call a soul; will she discover one? "I have just not known what it is. All I know is that if I ever do become touched with it, it will be through the material and the mortal since with people like me the unseen must be proved by the seen."
This "touching through the material and the mortal" is the substance page 108 of the novel. "God moves in a mysterious way but Baal is admirably clear."
The book carries an epigraph from Job xlii: 5, "I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee." At the end, this reference is picked up again, as Germaine stumbles up the deserted church into the pulpit and reads the open page of the great Bible; she finds not only verse five, but verse six, "Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes". Recalling the sterile sex-obsessed life that lies behind her, she sees that "my whole life I've burnt incense to idols when I could have burnt incense to love", and sinks melodramatically into the oblivion of suicide.
This novel has bored, baffled and angered readers. Some put it down half-read, unable to penetrate the muttered turgid prose in which Germaine's interior monologue is rendered. But it is worth a struggle before you dismiss it. Bell Call, 1964, which employs equally whirling prose, tells of Tarl Prackett, genius-mother and believer in freedom. It is not yet available in New Zealand.