A weave of personal and political causes
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
GONE TO PEGASUS
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.