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.
Jones and his siblings grow up in a New Zealand that survives now, surely, as little more than a fading memory for him and his fellow baby-boomers.
Writing of the more recent past, he tells of how the unreal scenes of tectonic upheaval in Christchurch are still unfolding on his TV as the telephone brings an invitation from an overseas producer to write about what the country is going through. Trying to conceptualise the reactions of the victims, he recalls his first introduction to a 1950’s butcher’s shop:
One moment I am with Mum outside in the summer under blue sky and white cloud and in the murmuring warmth of the footpaths, and the next I am surrounded by bloody body parts with pleasant-sounding names, decorated with bits of fern and parsley.
The images include the butcher’s bloody apron and hands – blended with, but unmitigated by, the pine-scented odour of regularly raked fresh sawdust cloaking the concrete floor.
Five weeks later he is located in the midst of the devastation, trying to reconcile the Christchurch before him with his memories of previous visits. As he interviews the residents struggling to maintain some normalcy in their upturned lives, we are constantly reminded of how the currently upwelling sand and peat swamp was charted on old maps, but forgotten as it was optimistically drained and built over, to create a kind of fiction, or fantasy.
Some future writer may one day expound upon why the NZ media endlessly covered the damage and controversy over the partial collapse of the Anglican cathedral while all but ignoring, comparatively speaking, the parallel destruction of its Catholic counterpart. Jones finds himself again and again standing alongside the broken remains of the Catholic Cathedral basilica on Barbadoes Street to watch the stonemasons dismantling the ruins and numbering the stones that it may be faithfully rebuilt. During his visits, a purpose slowly takes shape. Can he retrace and recover the elements of his own past and reassemble them in the manner of the basilica?
The task will be a challenge: ‘The family trait was silence. Great wreaths of it were wound around our lives and stuffed in the windows and hallway of our parents’ house.’ Neither his mother nor father spoke of their barely-known parents. His mother obsessively spies on the mother who gave her up as a child, but has nothing to say about or to her.
We join him in his childhood years: ‘As the last of a litter of five kids, rather than being told about the indecency of my mother’s late-in-life pregnancy, I am informed that I was found under a cabbage leaf.’ His consequent searches in the garden for more like him go sadly unrewarded – unlike the scuttling discoveries from turned-over seaside rocks. His elder brother is seventeen years his senior, and even his sisters live in a more adult world. He paints the sights, sounds and smells of the Hutt Valley state-housed habitat of his childhood, interspersed with brief forays to the present and introducing us to some of his more colourful contemporaries. How easily, it appears, we have forgotten that smoking was once accepted as a basic necessity, and houses, pubs and offices reeked accordingly while butts were routinely flicked in every direction outside.
The landscape broadens beyond visual evocation as we encounter his mother’s fear of social reproval. In this tightly buttoned world of the recent past, sex was an unspeakable topic: barely tolerated within marriage and otherwise universally proscribed. A pregnant twelve-year-old neighbour cannot be mentioned. His sister’s unwed pregnancy is cause for shame and banishment, and an accompanying continuing silence. These were the closing decades of an age when out-of-wedlock pregnancies brought unspeakable shame upon the young woman and her family – yet with an inexplicably unquestioned absence of concomitant social approbation or consequences for the young man inextricably involved.
Jones takes us along with him into his mother’s (and in turn her mother’s) world, where the sins of the parents are sanctimoniously visited upon the children in shame and rejection.
This is more than a simple work of detection digging through the evidence of past lives. The voyage of discovery loops through Britain and Russia and we stand alongside the courageous and fallen Hester Prynne – heroine of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter – as she stands with her child on the scaffold, facing down the puritanical clergyman who insists that she name its father:
The catastrophe for fallen women such as Maud and Hester is the length of the fall. Both women will go on breaking their fall with one hand while clinging onto their child with the other.
The author’s genius is in bringing everything to life, as keenly perceptive observations of the present merge with equally drawn reconstructions of times, people, places and attitudes past and present.
The crowning glory of his search emerges from the musty New Zealand Government Archives: the bulging file of papers recording his maternal grandmother’s 1923 divorce from the man she had married hoping ‘to give her daughter a name’. How extraordinary today to envisage what divorce proceedings were like back then, when:
Anyone willing to go through the ordeal had to face a jury, like a criminal, and the prospect of their dirty washing hung out for all to see. For Maud, the courtroom has turned itself into a version of the scaffold on which Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne was made to stand with her daughter Pearl and atone for her sins.
Jones is left with a clearer and fuller understanding of his mysterious grandmother’s life and struggles than his mother was ever aware of. Even his mother’s name is not that given initially. Along with the record of acrimony come the names of the missing twigs and branches of the family tree. Like the patient reconstruction of the Catholic Cathedral, the missing family history of both his parents is slowly and perceptively pieced together. The history of silence is finally at an end.
In interviews Lloyd Jones has referred to Christchurch paying a price for failing to remember its past, and the foundations upon which it was built. His memoir (which arguably is also a novel where it essays the recreation of past lives) offers a powerful argument for us to make an effort to know and understand the lives of our own familial antecedents, and thus our own histories. His writing style is as accessible and personal as the persona he projects in his interviews. I strongly recommend this work and very much look forward to his next project.
BRIAN CLEARKIN is a reviewer and writer who lives in Thames on the Coromandel.