Bangs up to date

by John McCrystal / 16 May, 2013
Stevan Eldred-Grigg brings his fictional family through the 1960s and onward.
Stevan Eldred-Grigg’s tetralogy, starting with Oracles and Miracles in 1987, is unique in New Zealand literature.
Stevan Eldred-Grigg: more, please. Photo/Gareth Watkins


Apart from Maurice Gee’s Plumb trilogy, there have been no estimable attempts to trace the fortunes of a single Kiwi family through time. And few Kiwi novels can claim to have been underpinned by such a mastery of New Zealand social history.

Bangs, which begins in the late 1950s, uses the same share-it-around first-person narration technique as the previous three titles in the series; it opens with the voice of Gwendolyn Bang, the daughter of Ginnie from Mum. Gwendolyn is off to visit the doctor in order, she hopes, to have her suspicions confirmed that menopause has finally arrived to stop her having baby after baby. You sort of know, long before she answers the doctor’s question about her age and despite her denials, that her symptoms are of another affliction altogether.

Gwendolyn remains a central character in the novel, even though the story and narrative perspective are mostly that of her new daughter, Meridee. Like the rest of her family before her, poor little Meridee is a prisoner of her background.

There are chinks of light in the darkness – she is bright, and the opportunity for social advancement is far greater than it was for her great-aunts Ginnie and Fag at the other end of the 20th century, or even for her uncles Roddie and Christopher in the 60s in the Shining City.

The greatest obstacle to her getting away, or going anywhere for that matter, is her slobbish, self-absorbed, crippled mother. Gwendolyn is a superbly drawn character. You sense her love for Meridee, stunted though it is. And you can understand, although you can’t condone them, her acts of frustrated cruelty towards her daughter. Even the baffling aspects of her character are thoroughly credible: her socially conditioned tendency to favour the boys in the family over the girls, even when two of the boys decide to use their sister to experiment with their sexuality, has the ring of ghastly truth.

Occasionally, Eldred-Grigg introduces the voice of an outsider to the family, presumably to provide a little detached commentary. Meridee’s high school history teacher despairs over whether she will take the chance her intellect offers her to transcend her home and family; her Australian boyfriend describes for us what Meridee herself cannot seem to see, namely her physical attractiveness and cleverness.

In the background, of course, is Christchurch and wider New Zealand society. Meridee comes to young adulthood in the Muldoon years. The conservative elements of society have closed ranks against the permissiveness of the swinging 60s. But change is in the wind. The once practically monochromatic Christchurch complexion now features brown faces – Tongans and Samoans. Nightclubs are beginning to open in downtown Christchurch, rivalling the rugby club as the sole focus of social activity. And Kiwis are beginning to take wing and establish themselves across the Tasman.



By the three-quarter stage of the novel, the reader is anxious to know how things will turn out for poor Meridee. So, too, it seems, is the author. The only unsatisfactory aspect of Bangs is that it abandons the more or less strict chronological progression and locates Meridee in the very recent past.

That was necessary in order to write the Canterbury earthquakes into the story: there is a teasing line in irony throughout as Meridee laments that nothing as exciting as a war or other calamity is ever likely to befall her city. Eldred-Grigg constructs an elegant and pleasing ending, but the chronological leap leaves a big hole where the revolution that began in the mid-1980s belongs. Perhaps this signals the possibility of another novel in the series. Here’s hoping.

BANGS, by Stevan Eldred-Grigg (Penguin, $30).

John McCrystal is a writer and reviewer.
MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage

Latest

Podcast: Dead man walking - a conman's lie unravels
78369 2017-08-21 08:47:47Z Crime

Podcast: Dead man walking - a conman's lie unravel…

by Megan McChesney

Harry Gordon successfully faked his own death and had been living a brand new life for five years – until he bumped into his brother.

Read more
Should your social media account be mined by broadcasters?
78367 2017-08-21 07:32:43Z Technology

Should your social media account be mined by broad…

by Colin Peacock

The BSA suggests broadcasters should get permission to run items lifted from social media accounts - but is that realistic?

Read more
Kiwis pay tribute to Sir Colin 'Pinetree' Meads
78363 2017-08-21 07:01:47Z Sport

Kiwis pay tribute to Sir Colin 'Pinetree' Meads

by RNZ

Sir Colin Meads has been described as having "skills like a bat and the strength of a rhinoceros", as tributes pour in for the All Blacks rugby great.

Read more
Dental work for poor should focus on prevention - dentists
78359 2017-08-21 06:41:36Z Social issues

Dental work for poor should focus on prevention - …

by Sarah Robson

Winz spent $140m on emergency dental grants over the past six years, but dentists say cheaper checkups could help avoid more expensive work later on.

Read more
Leaky home victims file complaint against High Court judge
78290 2017-08-21 00:00:00Z Property

Leaky home victims file complaint against High Cou…

by Maria Slade

Robin and Patricia Kelly say Justice Mark Woolford’s connection with the founder of Signature Homes was a conflict of interest.

Read more
Northland youth get help designing their future with studio Akau
76389 2017-08-21 00:00:00Z Life in NZ

Northland youth get help designing their future wi…

by Kate Evans

Kaikohe collaborators Ruby Watson and Ana Heremaia are the “Twin Towers” giving youth in the Far North a vision and a voice.

Read more
Labour needs more than star power
78356 2017-08-20 19:20:03Z Politics

Labour needs more than star power

by Bevan Rapson

Labour does a solid line in celebrity endorsements, but the line up at the end of its campaign launch was a reminder of its recent lacklustre history.

Read more
Top of the Lake: China Girl is like no other crime show
78342 2017-08-20 00:00:00Z Television

Top of the Lake: China Girl is like no other crime…

by Fiona Rae

Murder, trafficking and porn are spotlighted in the second season of Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake.

Read more