Book of the week
FALSE RIVER PAULA MORRIS PENGUIN, $35
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!