Book of the week

FALSE RIVER PAULA MOR­RIS PEN­GUIN, $35

The Dominion Post - Your Weekend (Dominion Post) - - Books -

Re­viewed by Ni­cholas Reid

Paula Mor­ris is an ac­com­plished New Zealand writer and the au­thor of one of this coun­try’s best his­tor­i­cal nov­els, Ran­gatira. But she’s also a very cos­mopoli­tan writer. She’s trav­elled a lot. False River, a col­lec­tion of shorter pieces, makes this clear. There are six pieces of fic­tion, set in Amer­ica, Latvia, Italy and New Zealand. They are fol­lowed by eight pieces of non-fic­tion, which take Mor­ris to Den­mark and Bel­gium as well.

The short story “False River” opens the col­lec­tion. It’s told in the first per­son by an Amer­i­can man, who is try­ing to cope with a mar­riage break-up and bizarre fam­ily hap­pen­ings in the wake of Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina, which wrecked New Or­leans. The col­lec­tion closes with “City to be Aban­doned”, Mor­ris’s har­row­ing ac­count of how she and her hus­band ex­pe­ri­enced Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina when they were liv­ing in New Or­leans. Th­ese two pieces frame the book. Fic­tion and fact blend and in­flu­ence each other.

In both her fic­tion and her non-fic­tion, Mor­ris has a num­ber of con­stant con­cerns. She is in­ter­ested in fam­ily re­la­tion­ships and the life­long in­flu­ence of child­hood. A per­fectly con­ceived short story like “The Third Snow” drama­tises fis­sures and ten­sions in the marriages of both an older cou­ple and a younger cou­ple.

When she writes fac­tu­ally about her­self, in “Women Still Talk­ing”, “In­her­i­tance” and “Sick Notes”, Mor­ris gives loving por­traits of her own par­ents. But she also tells us much about the way she her­self ap­proaches writ­ing (such as jot­ting down con­ver­sa­tions she hears in real life) and about the books that in­flu­enced her as a child.

This is another of her ma­jor in­ter­ests – chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture and lit­er­a­ture in general. There’s a mod­ernised re-write of Kather­ine Mans­field’s “The Gar­den Party”, show­ing how it might look from the per­spec­tive of the poorer fam­ily. One sur­pris­ing foray into chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture is the piece on the for­got­ten lachry­mose tale “A Dog of Flan­ders”.

The long­est sin­gle ar­ti­cle in False River is “Rocky Ridge”, a 38-page es­say on Laura In­galls Wilder’s se­ries of Lit­tle House books – Amer­i­can tales which Mor­ris loved as a child. The es­say in no way de­bunks th­ese chil­dren’s clas­sics, but it does look at them from a sterner adult per­spec­tive. Mor­ris notes how the books soft­ened and per­haps sen­ti­men­talised a real fam­ily his­tory, and how they grew out of a stormy re­la­tion­ship be­tween mother and daugh­ter.

Have I given the im­pres­sion that this is a var­ied and in­ter­est­ing col­lec­tion? I hope so. Of course, there are changes of tone, given that fic­tion is never quite the same as non-fic­tion and given that most of the con­tents first ap­peared in pub­li­ca­tions aimed at dif­fer­ent au­di­ences. But the sharp in­tel­li­gence of the au­thor, the skill in han­dling dif­fer­ent gen­res, the fac­tual re­search, the at­ten­tion to telling de­tail and – yes – the ten­der re­gard for fore­bears are all here, and all make this a won­der­ful read.

GONE WITH THE WIND (MAR­GARET MITCHELL)

There’s so much I could say about this clas­sic book, which I loved. The as­pect that stays with me though is the char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion of Scar­lett – her self­ish­ness and in­de­pen­dence, and the way she flouts con­ven­tion. The way in which Scar­lett pur­sues Ash­ley at the ex­pense of Rhett is one of the most pow­er­ful love-tri­an­gle type sto­ry­lines I’ve read. This is also the book that in­tro­duced me to the Civil War and the huge up­heaval it wrought. PIL­LARS OF THE EARTH (KEN FOL­LETT)

Again, the thing that stays in my mind about Pil­lars of the Earth is the char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion and the en­tire “world” that is built within the novel. It’s a vivid glimpse into another time, with ill­ness, war­fare, per­sonal suf­fer­ing and yet, great in­no­va­tion. There are few books I’ve read that can cre­ate an en­tire so­ci­ety so con­vinc­ingly, with char­ac­ters that each have such dis­tinct per­son­al­i­ties and roles. THE DAY OF THE JACKAL (FRED­ER­ICK FORSYTH)

This book gripped me – it’s such a page turner. The pace is re­lent­less, and each word means some­thing in the story. I love the way it shows dif­fer­ent scenes, in­ter­wo­ven with the main nar­ra­tive. Each scene seems to start and end per­fectly. As a reader I ap­pre­ci­ated it, but now as a writer I re­alise just how hard that is to achieve!

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