Title: The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965

Author: Joan Stevens

Publication details: Reed Publishing (NZ) Ltd, 1966

Digital publication kindly authorised by: Sylvia Johnston

Part of: New Zealand Texts Collection

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The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965

Postscript I : Light Fiction

Postscript I : Light Fiction

Judging by work published in 1960-65, the novel seems indeed to be established in New Zealand. Among serious writers there have been new novels that consolidate old reputations (Cross, Frame, Ballan-tyne, Hilliard, Duckworth), while there have been also some memorable first appearances (Pearson, Shadbolt, Wallis, Billing). In light fiction, the upward trend in quality and quantity continues, while there have been some useful extensions of range.

Light Fiction. The bread-and-butter of popular fiction publishing continues to be earned by romantic entertainments aimed at women readers, our earliest and longest-lived type of "exploiting" novel. In it, sheep stations, North and South, are still plentiful; the Maori people still have sales-appeal in plot, title, and jacket design; and a rosy glow of unreality suffuses the "enchanted islands", "long white clouds", "blue remembered hills", and "singing tides" of the exotic country which these tale tellers evoke. History is still with us: sometimes a beautiful girl will "cast a shadow over three generations" in the dear old homestead under the elms; sometimes she has a turbulent life among the Wild Whalers at Port Underwood or Te Awaiti; sometimes she is a waif washed ashore on a raft, and roughs it on the goldfields; sometimes she comes fresh from the Old Country to dwell in a "colonial mansion by an enchanted river", meeting there tattooed Maori chiefs, perils and passion, and finally choosing the stockman for her mate; he proves to be, of course, an Earl.

Romances with contemporary settings are less hackneyed. In these, the heroine takes a job in a country store during her university vacation, boards with a Maori family, and marries "an exciting hermit"; or she runs a guest-house for tourists in Fiordland; or she meets some attractive medico on the Voyage Out, and is later rescued by him after hectic adventures with seducers, deserted whares, and old gravel pits in the pine forests. One or two story spinners still offer the old style heroine, ordered by an eccentric will to come "to the colony" (today!) and marry some unknown bronzed "colonial" who, of course, turns out on her arrival to have other ideas. One heroine, the spoilt child of wealthy, class-conscious parents, falls for the unpretentious man at the service-station; another settles for a country school teacher. Thus is democracy asserted.

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Ring of Truth. Some shrewdly observed local and domestic scenes give a ring of truth to Eva Burfield's The Long Winter, 1964, in which a hitch-hiker's involvement with the family establishes a strong plot. Margot Bennett's heroine Jenny, in That Summer's Earthquake, 1963, shares with her brother in the sheep work (lambing, shearing, dogs, maggots and all) on a Napier run, and falls disastrously in love with the "hired hand" Sam, a drunken swagger with a past. They elope, but the author evades the problems which she has very convincingly posed by ringing down her curtain with the earthquake.

Less acceptable are several popular exploitations of Maori themes: in these the colour question is invariably raised, but handled with sentimental insincerity, or deliberate cheating. In one story, the racial barrier between young Dr Tane and pretty little Gay is removed by the expedient of revealing that he is, after all, of white blood, having been merely "brought up Maori".

New Names. New names among romancers include Doris Addison, Menie Archibald, Marama Brent, Joyce Dingwell, Annette Eyre, Margaret Fenwick, Catherine Hay, Douglas Lord, Sally T. Ollivier, D. M. Owen, Clarice Robertson, Nora Sanderson, Harold Valentine.

A new area has been opened up by several writers who offer the "hospital novel", basically a love story spiced with tonsillectomies, blood transfusions and graver occasions. Will staff nurse Kate elope with Dr Peter? Has Matron really fallen in love with the hospital porter? Who will snap up the youngest house surgeon, or the so-wealthy and handsome accident case in Ward Three? This romantic sub-type offers possibilities, for the closed setting of hospital life promotes that clash of personalities which is the stuff of fiction, while the drama of life and death is a readymade background. Something more than mere entertainment may be made of it yet. Marion Kennedy's melodramatic The Wrong Side of the Door, 1963, is clearly meant to be informative as well as thrilling. It is a first-person story of the training of a psychiatric nurse.

Crime Fiction. Another sub-type flourishing in recent years is the detective story, where we have at least one remarkable success, Simon Jay's Death of a Skin Diver, 1964. This has a tight plot, good writing, and a really knowledgeable exploitation of the New Zealand setting. What could be better ingredients for a local thriller than skindiving, yachting and yachtsmen, expeditions by day and by night on the intricacies of the Waitemata Harbour (with maps), plus some smuggling, some science, some humour, and some murder? Simon Jay is a pseudonym disguising an Auckland pathologist; his amateur page 115 detective is, naturally, also a pathologist, Dr Peter Much, who looks like a winner.

There are several other newcomers to the genre. Ralph Stephenson has an "on-the-run" yarn; Valerie Grayland has tried to establish a Maori detective; Noeline Tarrant sets a lively story among Rotorua weekenders, with boats and a tapu cave as extras. Barbara Cooper, in Target for Malice, 1964, makes an original first thriller out of tensions below the suburban surface of a group of isolated houses. The young married folk involved are well managed, as are the criminal details, the poisoned cat, the social evening, the sleeping pills, the conventional chit-chat, and—not to give the plot away—the milk bottle.

Our most consistent producer of homegrown detection has been Elizabeth Messenger, who has added five titles to her list. The best is A Heap of Trouble, 1963, set in the Bay of Islands. Who used the launch last? Why is Miss Preedy's rockery interesting? Is that a body in the sawdust heap? Elizabeth Messenger also wrote a historical story of the Otago goldfields, based on family papers. Mary Scott and Joyce West continue to collaborate in stories featuring their detective Inspector Wright; the liveliest is Who put it there, 1965, which manipulates the stock devices with competence. Neva Clarke's Behind Closed Doors, 1964, is a modification of the type, a novel of manners that ends in madness and murder. Adrienne Geddes and Bee Baldwin have made a beginning with science fiction set in New Zealand.

Kath. Kath is a girl's name, and also prison slang for an indeterminate sentence. Both kinds of "Kath" threaten the central figure of Keith Henshaw's novel Kath, 1964. The publishers announce this as a suspense thriller, which it certainly is. But it is also as economical and vitriolic a satire on the lower levels of New Zealand life as we have had for a long time. The dialogue is sharp, crude, crackling and recognisable. The setting is real. The little ring of vivid, amoral characters grate upon one another in a fast plot. Vern, Merv and Ne are "chippies" on an Auckland housing construction job, and take to large-scale timber stealing, aided by Nev and nasty little Eric. Kath is the wife of Vern. In spite of the vamped-up horror fantasies of the ending, Kath is an intelligent and memorable evocation of our seamier side.

The sex-and-violence thriller with a historical base is still saleable, it seems, to judge by the continuing issue of stories by Frank Bruno and George Joseph.

Timber and Topdressing. The mystery yarn with a realistic contemporary base has begun to have some importance. Arthur Manning followed up his first venture with Tainted Money, 1963, in which the teller, with stolen money in his care, is involved as both page 116 pursuer and pursued. Effective use is made of professional flying in aerial topdressing work. J. S. Tullett also uses this as the mainspring for a story, Red Abbott, 1964. Bulldozers, chainsaws, logging trucks and union bosses make the plot in White Pine, 1965, though unfortunately there is also a tapu tree and a tohunga. Yellow Streak, 1963, deals with prospecting at the present day in Nelson. These novels are well informed and competently made. Tullett has also published Tar White, 1962, historical fiction very adequately spun from events at the Te Awaiti whaling settlements of 1837. C. Merton Wentworth also discovered useful technical material in Mill Town, 1963, but handled it only at the level of horrific journalese. Unusual matter mishandled is also to be found in Michael Burgess's prison shocker, Mister, 1964.

Recognisable. Some light fiction offers us a picture of contemporary life for its own sake, using amused recognition rather than mystery or drama for its supporting structure. Such are the two novels of R. L. Bacon, In the Sticks, 1963, and Along the Road, 1964, based on the actual tribulations of a solecharge teacher in a remote district. In spite of a tendency to caricature, Bacon is observant, and on the whole unsentimental.

Michael Davis began with a series of farcical sketches, Mutton on the Menu, 1962 (what a Mary Scott title!), but in The Watersiders, 1964, produced a more realistic novel set in the unfamiliar world of the "seagulls" of the Napier wharves, where he worked two years for copy. The authenticity of the book carries it over weaknesses in technique. J. Edward Brown has a real subject, too, in Luck of the Islands, 1963; he tells of a Rarotongan family who come to Auckland. He misses his opportunity however, and presents his Polynesians only in a series of comedy cliches. Barry Crump has continued his headlong hardcase Kiwi career with Hang on a Minute Mate, 1961, One of Us, 1962, Scrapwaggon, 1965, and others. Gordon Dryland's An Absence of Angels, 1965, is a comedy of contemporary life in which the hero, a culture-conscious librarian, is attracted to Angela, model, scriptwriter and ex-wife of a poet. It is a witty exposure of pseudo-artistic circles.

One unpretentious story reminds us of the "preaching" novels of the 1890s. It is His Own Enemy, 1965, by "S.S.", which deserves individual mention here for the sincerity of its purpose and the fidelity of its detail. It tells of the rehabilitation of an alcoholic.

Historical Romances. Among the romances two stand out for their more serious intentions. Margaret Mackay's Amanda, 1963, is an example of our saga of family life, somewhat in the Scanlan tradition. It begins in the 1890s with newly-weds pioneering in the southern high country. Amanda is widowed, the children grow, and page 117 the clan proliferates under the dominance of the Founding Mother. Basically, it is a story of personal relationships, for which historical fact is only a scaffolding rather clumsily erected in blocks of exposition.

Dell Adsett's A Magpie Sings, 1963, is based on life in a small northern farming community in the 1900s. It is handicapped by the size of the canvas, by the author's uncertain management of her angle of presentation, and by lack of a strong narrative line. But the children are real, and there are very lively sketches of local life.