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.


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