A weave of per­sonal and po­lit­i­cal causes

Weekend Herald - - Books Demelza Jones -

Dunedin, 1892: Grace takes no pris­on­ers; Eva has just handed one over. Both are bereft in dif­fer­ing ways. Grace’s hus­band has re­vealed him­self as a bronzed bounder; Eva’s has been com­mit­ted to Sea­cliff

Lu­natic Asy­lum, racked by shud­der­ing fears, sto­ries buzzing in his ears.

Music brings the two women to­gether. Mo­tifs of har­mony, dis­cord, coun­ter­point and com­po­si­tion thread neatly through­out this first novel. A choir re­hearses Brahms’ German Re­quiem, a Beethoven sonata fills Welling­ton’s St Pauls and a recital be­side snow­bound Lake Wakatipu prom­ises unity but brings sep­a­ra­tion.

But pol­i­tics soon su­per­sedes art. Eva and Grace im­merse them­selves in the Suf­frag­ist strug­gle for women’s fran­chise, fight­ing male con­de­scen­sion (“Pet­ti­coat Gov­ern­ment . . . tur­baned, feathered rule . . . un­nat­u­ral crea­tures”) and such re­ac­tionar­ies as the clammy, ap­pro­pri­ately named lo­cal MP, Harry Fish. It’s a story of lim­its set, chal­lenged and over­come; there are the for­mi­da­ble wilder­nesses of 19th cen­tury New Zealand, Vic­to­rian stereo­types of marriage and sex, the bound­aries of medicine.

One peril of such a plot is di­dac­ti­cism. Tessa Red­grave avoids the trap in most places; her char­ac­ters do pack a lot of in­for­ma­tion into their con­ver­sa­tions but they’re nearly al­ways peo­ple, not mouth­pieces. Their friend­ships across re­li­gious creeds and so­cial classes add tex­ture to the nar­ra­tive.

Lives are full to brim­ming. Per­sonal


by Tessa Red­grave (Makaro Press, $35) Re­viewed by David Hill and do­mes­tic causes and crises fea­ture as well as po­lit­i­cal ones. Many buried se­crets are re­vealed; many re­la­tion­ships are knot­ted and/or un­picked.

Pro­tag­o­nists heal, es­cape, com­pose, van­ish. Things end on a pleas­ingly up­beat note, with an authen­tic ac­cep­tance of hu­man pre­car­i­ous­ness.

It feels a thor­oughly re­searched nar­ra­tive. Time and places con­vince. Pe­riod de­tails from white taffeta hats and cham­ber­pots to the Women’s Chris­tian Tem­per­ance Union in cru­sad­ing, re­ac­tionary mode stud and oc­ca­sion­ally stuff the pages. Pi­o­neer suf­frag­ist Kate Shep­pard ap­pears; Em­me­line Pankhurst gets a line. Truby King, of Plun­ket fame, is a re­cur­ring fig­ure, with full credit given to his hu­mane regime of ex­er­cise, pur­pose and kind­ness for the men­tally un­well. Premier John Bal­lance passes by.

The writ­ing is care­ful, in­ter­mit­tently edges towards florid. Eyes “brim with mis­chief”; a woman “feels the fire in her cheeks”; “golden light . . . sprin­kles the moun­tains”. I’m not sure that the hi­bis­cus tat­too on one gent’s bum is a wise move. But a de­ter­mined, dis­ci­plined de­but, and an­other neat pack­age from Makaro Press.

Tessa Red­grave

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