Hawaii, Australia, and Northern Ontario are the settings for three new novels
A problem with characterization also damages Linda Spalding's Daughters of Captain Cook (Lester & Orpen Dennys, 224 pages, $13.95 paper). The book centres on a sensitive young woman, Jesse Quill, and the breakdown of her marriage. Since the husband, Paul, is never made to seem worth Jess's attention in the first place, a reader has trouble with her agonies. Paul's physically attractive but otherwise a loser; he fives on an allowance, he plays at being a photographer, he indulges his passions and his large, selfish ego. Are Jess's love and adoration therefore wrongheaded? Is she a dope, too? Spalding gives no indication that her book can be read this way. Jess's lamentations are not the stuff of irony.
The novel has its good points. It's cleanly plotted and organized, the writing is precise and capable of some finely wrought imagery (more on this in a moment), and there's an effectively controlled air of menace. The story goes like this: Jess, from a pioneer Kansas family, has eloped with Paul, who is heir to a large colonial estate in Hawaii (he is soon disinherited, except for the allowance); they have a daughter, Kit, who is seven in the summer of 1973, when the marriage blows up. They have recently moved to Hawaii, to be near the family property, which has been willed to Paul's adopted Hawaiian sister, Mihana. Paul leaves the marriage for Mihana's 14?year? old daughter. Themes of pedophilia and incest lurk everywhere under the banyan tree.
If you're impressed by Spalding's first?person prose, you'll Eke this book. I'm not. For me, too much of the language is self?conscious, breathy, portentous, repetitive. Too much of it seems like an attempt to poeticize the trite, to cloak every act and detail with a lush (and artificial) lyricism. Too many fines are like these: "the ocean smell was rich and heavy, full of sex"; or "I ran my hand along Kit's spine, measuring its terrible fragility"; or "the morning leaked away; and the day turned into something hot, impatient, fragile with woe" (the publishers have chosen this last one for their blurb). If Spalding's characters were worth all this effort, all this pretence at profundity (as jean
Rhys's are in Wide Sargasso Sea, to cite a novel with a similar tropical setting and a similar mood of sexual foreboding), then my objection would vanish. I'm also sure that other readers will find this sort of hothouse prose right up their alleys.
The early pages of The Drama Dreams of Zoo Animals, by Valmai Howe (Nu?Age Editions, 226 pages), seem overwritten, too, a bit overheated, a bit too fond of adjectives, but after a while the prose settles down nicely. The structure, very short sections that alternate between the heroine's childhood and the present, is insistent at first, but a reader soon gets used to that as well. Howe's intelligence and tact are sufficient to overcome these potential weaknesses (not to mention a clutch of typos and some unlikely dialogue); she's produced an enjoyable novel with a plucky heroine and a core of emotional truth.
Sarah Ashton is a teenager living in Melbourne; she has a summer job, she's studying physiotherapy but wants to be a writer, her friend Emma's in arts, her father is a tyrant, her mother a coward, her lover, Leon, is twice her age and dangerously neurotic. Nothing too unusual here ?? just your normal adolescent conflicts. It's to Howe's credit that she can fit the ordinary and the extreme alike into patterns that create plausible motives and characters.
Sarah's father, a left?wing ideologue, is given to priggish rages, backyard nudity, and mistresses. He orders Sarah about and tries to control her life; with help from Emma and Leon, she survives and learns compassion for him and her overborne mother. She also has some charming schoolgirl giggles with Emma and some heavy sex with Leon. This is your basic rites?of? passage novel, but Howe handles it well, and her characters give the illusion of reality. If the book could use some tightening here and there ?? parts of it are rather limp ?? on the whole it's a solid piece of work.