02 April 2014

Eclectic Styles

cover image for ra lawson
David Eggleton
R.A. Lawson: Victorian architect of Dunedin, by Norman Ledgerwood (Historic Cemeteries Conservation Trust, 2013), 256 pp., $74.99
New Zealand’s Lost Heritage: The stories behind our forgotten landmarks, by Richard Wolfe (New Holland, 2013), 192 pp., $49.99
Converted Houses: New Zealand architecture recycled, by Lucinda Diack, (Penguin, 2012), 207 pp., $65
On a Saturday Night: Community halls of small-town New Zealand, by Michele Frey and Sara Newman, photography by John Maillard and John O’Malley, (Canterbury University Press, 2012), 295 pp., $45
Athfield Architects, by Julia Gately, (Auckland University Press, 2013), 310 pp., $75

Now that central Christchurch has been characterised by a signature architecture of collapsed masonry, around which the quarrel about whither the Garden City? is as yet so much hot gravel shovelled into a void, the New Zealand city with the best claim to the finest extant chunk of Victoriana is Dunedin, and the most remarkable of the soaring spires at Dunedin’s stony core are the work of one architect: Robert Arthur Lawson (1833–1902).
In R.A. Lawson: Victorian architect of Dunedin, Norman Ledgerwood’s well-paced and nicely-illustrated monograph, which also has a succinct contextualising Foreword by Jonathan Mane-Wheoki, justice is done to Lawson’s vast oeuvre, following on from detective work by art historian Peter Entwisle which helped establish that Lawson was involved in designing about 445 building projects, mostly in Otago and Southland but also in Melbourne.

Crazy Serial Killer Zombie Stuff

cover image for wake
Christine Johnston
Wake, by Elizabeth Knox (Victoria University Press, 2013), 445 pp., $35.00

Only one ship is seeking us, a black-
Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back
A huge and birdless silence. In her wake
No waters breed or break.

The final stanza of Philip Larkin’s poem ‘Next, Please’ introduces Elizabeth Knox’s novel Wake, and rings an alarm bell of sorts. So does Wake’s cover, showing five men and two women, most of whom are masked and rubber-gloved, standing by or burying bagged bodies in a mass grave. There’s a Kiwi look to the scene: a familiar style of house, a cabbage tree. The image conveys unease and indicates something nasty in our own backyard. So, I had been warned, but nothing prepared me for the first hundred pages of harrowing reading. What I read kept me awake at night, and I wondered if I could continue. Some of it haunts me still.

01 April 2014

Of Mochaccinos, Vespas and Architecture

cover image for Fall of Light
Kiran Dass
The Fall of Light, by Sarah Laing (Vintage, 2013), 339 pp., $38.00

With cities, it is as with dreams: everything imaginable can be dreamed, but even the most unexpected dream is a rebus that conceals a desire or, its reverse, a fear. Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.

Auckland-based writer and illustrator Sarah Laing opens her novel The Fall of Light with this Italo Calvino passage from his 1972 novel Invisible Cities, and so sets the tone of her book. In Invisible Cities, Calvino explored the imagination and the architecturally imaginable/unimaginable through descriptions of the imaginative potentialities of cities. He visualised the possibilities of how cities could be constructed and how they could function on a practical level.
In The Fall of Light, Rudy (short for Rudyard, as in Kipling) is an obsessive, workaholic middle-aged architect whose glamorous (in that distinctly glossy, bohemian jasmine-scented-Grey-Lynn-house way) wife Yasmin has left him and the flash, clutter-free West Auckland house Rudy proudly designed for them, taking their two daughters (the bitingly dismissive, surly neo-goth Seraphine and the empathetic Gala) with her.

Not Doing Things Straight

cover image for Frederick's coat
Simone Oettli
Frederick’s Coat, by Alan Duff, (Random House, 2013), 288 pp., $ 37.99

When I first received Frederick’s Coat to review I thought Alan Duff had written another book about a life of fighting and crime in the underworld, but although the novel both starts off and ends that way, it soon takes a completely different and very surprising turn. The unusual and indeterminate title raises questions rather than answers. Who is Frederick? Why is his coat important? These questions entail other questions about what it is like to be different, so different as not to be acceptable to society. It takes the whole book to give complex and sometimes ambivalent answers to these questions.
As with Duff’s previous Who Sings for Lu? this novel is set in Australia with the main action taking place in Sydney. We first encounter the protagonist, thirteen-year-old Johno Ryan, being questioned by his best friend, Shane McNeil, about an impending fight. Johno is on his way to thrash a bully three years older than himself, who has the reputation of being a good fighter, and Shane keeps asking his friend if he is scared. Johno is a strong character, resolved to fight for his principles no matter what the costs, and Shane is a weaker individual, with loyalty as a prime characteristic. They are very different, not only in their ability to fight. Shane has ‘no academic inclination’, whereas Johno has a tidy, logical mind and wants to be an engineer. The latter is represented as proud and confident, and can bring Shane into line with a sarcastic ‘You sure about yourself?’ But despite their differences they are ‘joined at the hip’.


cover image for elusive language of ducks
Kirstine Moffat
The Elusive Language of Ducks by Judith White, (Vintage, 2013), 376 pp., $37.99

Judith White’s second novel, published 13 years after her acclaimed Across the Dreaming Night, features both her signature ability to sensitively evoke the interior lives of the broken, anxious and grieving, and her deft talent for juxtaposing the poignant with the comedic. At the centre of this quirky novel is the relationship between heroine Hannah and a Muscovy duck, given to her after the death of her mother. The duck is both companion and symbolic focal point, reminiscent of Paul Gallico’s fable The Snow Goose (1941).
White scores high on the idiosyncratic title stakes, rivalling the inventiveness of Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog (2006) and Maria Lewycka’s A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (2005). The test of a quirky title is that is must entice the reader with intriguing and not readily answered questions, and in this White immediately succeeds. What is the language of ducks? Why is it elusive? I want to know.

Cautiously Searching for Ancestors

cover image for migrations
Chris Else
Migrations by Rod Edmond, (Bridget Williams Books, 2013), 248 pp., $39.99

History begins where memory ends, although the line between the two is blurred: other people’s memories – parents’ and grandparents’, for example – are as much our personal experiences as our own; and the artificial construction of the past from the historical record is not always a public matter. Many people feel the need to push beyond the now and seek their roots not just in a culture or a place but in the lives of individuals – their ancestors. I find this puzzling. I know little about my own family history and have never been disposed, beyond a lukewarm curiosity, to find out. Looking back down the lines of inheritance seems to me an odd way of arriving at any truth about myself. How far would I go? Three generations brings fourteen people into the story; another three takes the total to 126. Do I explore them all or do I select from amongst them? And if I do select, how do I choose? The choice between bloodlines seems almost as arbitrary as self-invention, for which I would need no painstaking research.

Found Under a Cabbage Leaf

cover image for a history of silence
Brian Clearkin
A History of Silence, by Lloyd Jones (Penguin, 2013), 273 pp., $38

From the first lines of the first page, Jones draws you into his finely sketched world. Scattered throughout the present are links and clues to his past. His apartment occupies the old shoe factory, which manufactured his childhood shoes. A book, gifted to his father with a flyleaf inscription from his mother, expresses more love between them than he ever observed in his family years. Through his childhood eyes we glimpse the inaccessible Spartan starkness of their motel-like twin bedroom home.
Slowly the past is brought into the picture, from childhood recollections to musing on how Captain James Cook’s artist William Hodges civilised and Anglicised the eighteenth-century antipodean wilderness landscapes he captured on canvas. As the jigsaw pieces of his world are turned over and fitted together, we glimpse the decidedly inauspicious beginnings of his parents’ lives – one as an orphan, the other given up for adoption at age four.