'The Peastick Girl'
Published by Black Pepper, 2012
IBSN: 9781876044749 (pbk.)
Early in this novel someone remarks to its central protagonist that New Zealand is ‘a hard country to come back to.’ Teresa Matheson has returned to Wellington after five years living in Melbourne and bought herself a house on the heights above the city within sight of her dead mother’s old home. The opening pages are both vertiginous and claustrophobic. Teresa is left dangling from a wooden ladder hanging from her veranda; she climbs to a ridge behind her house from where she can see both city and ocean and becomes trapped in a maze of gorse as she descends. She feels disconnected from her sisters, Mollie and Cass, and is troubled by Hugo whose former friendship with her mother provokes unease and a feeling there are disturbing things in her past that she knows nothing of. As she says to Mollie: ‘I’m here but I’m not really back; maybe you can’t get back.’
So far so familiar: the problems of returning and settling, and the questions of identity and selfhood that follow from this. But The Peastick Girl has an intensity and strangeness unusual in such ‘return of the native’ narratives. Teresa’s problems are not those of social or cultural adjustment. Indeed, apart from odd moments of near-slapstick about the curious habits of young New Zealand males, the novel is pretty free of contemporary social comment or satire. Wellington is as central to this novel as Egdon Heath is to Hardy’s Return of the Native, but it is a city empty of people other than the small cast of characters who are forever meeting or glimpsing each other as they traverse its streets. Katherine Mansfield’s city has become a wild place dominated by rain, light, wind and sound. Teresa’s house is a permeable membrane open to all weathers, a mere shack whose roof leaks and windows blow in, and through which disturbing memories swirl.
Hancock is running an elaborate parallel between the landscapes of the city and the mindscapes of her protagonist. As in Hopkins’s sonnet ‘No worst, there is none’, the mind ‘has mountains; cliffs of fall / Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed’. Teresa has an intensely close relation to the natural world, preferring to be outside than in, always thinly clad, impervious to the cold and wet that persist through most the novel. This dramatises her precarious state of mind and provides both comfort and escape from whatever it is that haunts her.
The most ambitious level of the novel is the parallel it attempts between the dislocation of its protagonist and the history of New Zealand since colonisation. ‘This whole country is a lie’, Teresa remarks to Hugo; ‘We signed up a Treaty in which we described ourselves as allies of a sovereign people, and then we broke it.’ The novel is haunted by the idea of treachery. As a consequence, no one is at home: ‘This was an empty country. Nobody had really written on it yet; a few furrows, sheep tracks, the scribbling of the wind’, Teresa reflects. I was reminded of the words scrawled across Colin McCahon’s ‘Northland Panels’: ‘a landscape with too few lovers.’
Teresa’s eventual lover and perhaps rescuer, Nikolai, is a Russian émigré, one of a shadowy group which inhabits the margins of the novel. Nikolai tells Teresa; ‘You are like us ... you haven’t really got here yet, you haven’t really arrived.’ Pakeha New Zealanders in this novel are unable to help each other. In Wellington they live dotted around the hills of the city, facing each other but apart. The feminist group, which Cass is part of, splinters once its Maori members leave. A women’s party at Mollie’s house on the Kapiti coast is not a sisterly occasion. In another scene, people gather on the beach at Makora at dusk but soon three separate fires have been lit; ‘the result of three different decisions, and disputes about the cooking and general organization of the event were turning into the event itself’. There are a number of these social gatherings punctuating the novel but none ends, as say Mrs Ramsey’s dinner in To the Lighthouse, or the assembly in the round shell house at the end of the bone people does, in harmony or reconciliation.
Both Teresa and her country are shown as suffering the consequences of an original trauma from which all subsequent pain and dislocation has followed. The place of Maori themselves in this is unclear. Their representative in The Peastick Girl is Rangi, an unsatisfactory character often seen standing on headlands looking out to sea or heard making gnomic utterances. Although by the end of the novel Teresa, having learnt the terrible secret of her past, has glimpsed a possibility of how she might begin to heal, no such hope is held out for a country as unsettled and broken as New Zealand. Help, if that is what Teresa has found, begins in a deserted farmhouse in the shadow of Mt Taranaki, far away from the entanglements of family and the anomic life of the city.
This account of the novel makes it seem thinner and more schematic than it is. The Peastick Girl is dense, rich, lyrical and engulfing. It pulls you in and has its way with you, brushing aside critical objections as it does. Much of its success is technical. The writing is poetic and elaborate but also very precise, repeatedly surprising in its effects, with remarkably few false notes. Teresa’s is the dominant consciousness but the point of view often shifts to other characters, and between past and present, in a manner that can momentarily wrong-foot the reader but which suits a work in which time streams rather than ticks.
Hancock is a very literary writer with a playful sense of the traditions of the novel as a form. Although the shifts in point-of-view are normally unannounced, at one point, in mock deference to the limits of the realist mode in making such switches, a third-person narrator declares: ‘And here, as he stands behind her ... we will leave him and begin to consider this scene so far from her point of view.’ Teresa, herself a writer though little is made of this, plans to adapt The Duchess of Malfi for a New Zealand context. Chapter 10, ‘Hugo at the Newspaper Office, Aeolus, the Cave of the Winds’ refers to Joyce’s Ulysses and Odysseus’s encounter with the wind-god in the tenth book of The Odyssey. And so on.
There is nothing heavy-handed about this literary referencing. In some ways The Peastick Girl is an almost offhand novel. Characters arrive unannounced and for no good reason other than the author needs them at that moment. Characters who are no longer needed simply fail to reappear. A vivid scene involving an exhilarating motorbike ride over the Rimutakas has no obvious purpose but I’m glad it’s there. Hancock pays no respect to those conventions of the form that require the author to take pains in moving a character from one place to another, or explain how it is that X knows Y. Instead she creates a fictional world as phantasmagoric as it is real, and none the less real for that.
This indeterminacy, however, creates a problem of how to end the novel. In part a mystery, only part of that mystery has been revealed by the novel’s close; other secrets hinted at remain undisclosed; loose ends dangle. Perhaps this is wise. A profound mystery always creates expectations that its solution must disappoint. On the other hand, when a mystery has helped propel a novel it is frustrating to find it left partly unresolved. Hancock’s solution of this problem is to conclude the narrative with the words, ‘To be continued.’ The full-stop is teasing, and the words can mean either there is a further volume to follow, or as I think more likely, that this is a story without end.
This is hardly a criticism. As I said, The Peastick Girl disarms most objections. It is one of those infrequent new New Zealand novels – Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal (2008) is another – that really is new.