The Orange Tree, by Helen Shaw, The Pelorus Press, 1957, 80 pp., 7s. 6d.
In this collection of eleven stories (attractively produced by the Pelorus Press – though an unfortunate misprint spoils the Contents page) of which none are long, and some so short as to be sketches only, Helen Shaw has steadfastly kept her sights on a limited target; but she has achieved by doing so a notable series of bull’s-eyes. The least successful are those pieces in which she has engaged a target at longer range, but even here she rarely scores worse than inners.
Her subject is the day before yesterday, or rather, the fragments of it that persist around us today, in the shape of old houses and old people. In her descriptions of these she is brilliantly successful; she has captured by suggestion a whole chapter of New Zealand’s social history. Economically, reasonably, but with real power, Helen Shaw has evoked the flavour of a material world familiar in its heyday to all those who grew up in this country; and familiar now in its ghostly decline, to all those whose eyes are sharp enough to spy, as they roll past, the bleached woodwork and the shuffling figure through the luxuriant leafage of the overgrown garden. Yet on the whole the portraits of people, penetrating as they are, do not come up to the loving rebuilding in words of those gaunt and fretted dwelling houses which are everywhere to be seen in our older suburbs. In a sedate style which suggests lace curtains and clean doormats, yet with the occasional bizarre flourish of words like the extravagantly carved eaves under the tin roof, Helen Shaw has transfixed verbally, as Lee-Johnson has done pictorially, the essence of this slice of our history.
The setting of ‘The Blind’, the longest of the stories, is a good example. The coloured glass verandah windows, the frilled pillows, the coal range, plush furniture, varnished dados, dark wallpaper – all the details are there of the house which has been a lifelong home to the dying mother and her two ageing daughters; and they are introduced so unobtrusively and yet so firmly in the course of the narrative that the suggestion and atmosphere are mesmeric in their power.
From this point of view the stories are beautifully worked: it is when we look closely at the figures who emerge from this background that a certain uneasiness becomes apparent. The people are not so confidently presented nor so independently observed as the houses. To say this is not to detract from He1en Shaw’s achievement: she has chosen to work in a small compass. Outcrops of stylization which appear here and there could be due to the compression which is so powerful an aid to the story teller. But in a sketch like ‘Mrs O’Connor, I Said’, which depends entirely on the vitality of an old woman’s talk, a certain thinness does show itself: the sketch is a brilliant piece of reporting and a brilliant re-setting of that ever-bright jewel, an old person’s courage; but it is not marked by imaginative insight. ‘The Three Strange Miss Vinings’, on the other hand, is so marked. Established as a fantasy in a dream setting (‘a pale, haunted facade of lace-edged verandahs and balconies’) this story is rich in undertones and suggestions of conflict and of grotesque endeavour. But when faced, as in ‘Cassie’, with the problem of portraying a normal little girl’s bewildered reaction to a widely varied set of new emotional experiences, Helen Shaw has managed only a pastiche of Katherine Mansfield.
It almost seems that this author reacts best to the stimulus of a particular situation: characters individual in their vitality (which is usually misdirected) placed in a setting decayed and marked by the hand of time. Nelly Mathias, remembering her girlhood in the house where she is now an old woman, Mr Valentine facing the angry bull across his garden border, old Miss Barclay shouting abuse at young Wilson who has bought her land: they are all human creatures proclaiming their uniqueness from among their mouldering habitations, asserting their existence before they are claimed by the everlasting silence.
No author could achieve such depths as this without considerable writing skill. Terse and coherent in form and rhythm, this author has a fine ear for epithet and a fine eye for images. Consider a sentence like this from the title story – ‘Slowly Mrs Kingi lowered herself into the springless sofa’s bobble-trimmed plush and sat counting birds skimming over bushy native mangroves that grew on a fan of tidal mud ending in a swamp not far from her boundary.’ This is narrative, yet how diversified in suggestion, how powerful in visual compulsion! Incidentally ‘The Orange Tree’ is the only story with Maori characters: the unsentimental comment it pronounces on the differences between the Maori and the pakeha outlook seems to show that Helen Shaw could well explore the theme more exhaustively.
It is pleasant to find such assured talent: and pleasant too to hope that its cultivation will yield further valuable fruits.