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David Ballantyne: A reputation upside down

David Ballantyne’s Sydney Bridge Upside Down is finally being recognised for the subversive classic it is, and is this month’s Listener Book Club choice

The most notable reappearance in New Zealand fiction of recent years has almost certainly been that of David Ballantyne’s long-neglected 1968 masterpiece, Sydney Bridge Upside Down. These days, Ballantyne’s reputation and status as one of the great forgotten men of New Zealand letters probably rest solely with the novel. The book has an unusual history of acclaim and marginalisation. Academic and author Patrick Evans has long sounded it as the great unread New Zealand novel, but others to champion it over the years have included Frank Sargeson, CK Stead and, more recently, Kate De Goldi, who was closely involved in Text Publishing’s decision to reprint the book in 2010, and also provides a compelling introduction to the new edition.

De Goldi revisits an earlier Evans argument, presenting the case for Sydney Bridge Upside Down’s central importance to a peculiarly New Zealand strain of fiction: the gothic, slaughterhouse tales whose resonances have been felt in writers as diverse as Katherine Mansfield, Janet Frame and Ronald Hugh Morrieson. She recognises, too, “the sing-song voice of the storyteller, evoking a fairy-tale ambience, alerting us to an ‘other’ world and the possibility that nothing is as it seems”. Perhaps it is the fairytale lyricism of Sydney Bridge Upside Down that allows the novel to transcend specific times and places; although the novel is supposedly set in depression-era Hicks Bay, it feels more like a contemporary reinvention of a fabled New Zealand of the past, a stereotypical childhood paradise twisted to darkly menacing ends, its voice imbued with a timelessness that many of Ballantyne’s contemporaries never developed.

Perhaps most obviously, Ballantyne invites comparison to Morrieson. Like him, Ballantyne met with early success, battled alcoholism and died relatively young, largely overlooked in literary terms. And also like Morrieson, he wrote one of the masterpieces of local gothic fiction in the 1960s. Yet whereas Morrieson and his madcap yarns have been well and truly rescued from the literary margins, Ballantyne remains largely unrecognised and unknown, his work sitting oddly adjacent to the canon. Sydney Bridge Upside Down is still, essentially, an obscure novel, perhaps most famous for its long neglect. When the topic of best first lines in New Zealand fiction comes up, Morrieson’s stolen fowls and the cut throat of Daphne Moran that opens The Scarecrow will always rate a mention, but I prefer Ballantyne’s in Sydney Bridge Upside Down. They are arresting:

There was an old man who lived on the
edge of the world, and he had a horse called
Sydney Bridge Upside Down. He was a
scar-faced old man and his horse was a slow moving
bag of bones, and I start with this
man and his horse because they were there
for all the terrible happenings up the coast
that summer, always somewhere around.

Where Morrieson is a yarn-spinner of caricatured slash and bluster, Ballantyne’s gothic menace is more subdued, elusive and sophisticated, and far darker for it. The sense of terror, faintly written into the novel’s opening, is expertly held. The scar-faced old man “who lived on the edge of the world” during “all the terrible happenings up the coast that summer” puts the novel’s natural terrain hauntingly into quasi-mythical territory. The novel relates the tale of its narrator, Harry Baird, a boy whose age is never disclosed, but who sits at the precarious cusp between child and adult worlds. Two events in particular signal the slow unravelling of Harry’s innocence: his mother’s departure to holiday in the city for the summer, and the arrival of his beautiful older cousin, the knowingly sexual Caroline. Other events are disturbingly elided, ratcheting up the tension of the story as the “terrible happenings” are slowly unfolded: what happened to Harry’s best friend, Dibs Kelly, on the afternoon when Harry pushed him over the cliff; the disappearance of Susan Prosser; what Mrs Kelly was doing with loathsome ladies’ man Chick Wiggins at the river in the van. When Harry arrives there, the scene is eerily abandoned, and the boy concludes that, “It was as if I’d only imagined seeing them.” Although the events of the novel are more or less straightforward, they are told with the absorbing, beautiful eeriness of one of the darkest and most compelling unreliable narrators in New Zealand fiction.

On one level, Harry is a sympathetically drawn character, a troubled child caught up unhappily in an adult world he doesn’t understand, struggling to negotiate what he deems are its most threatening elements. In this way, he is an innocent: he never fully understands why he earns the enmity of the scar-faced old man, Sam Phelps, nor does he understand why his mother has left him, his father and his brother for the summer. Most especially, he cannot fathom his intense and contradictory feelings for Caroline, seeing her as both a playmate and a sexual object, but completely unable to square the two. On the other hand, Harry is also a bully, picking on his friend Dibs and his younger brother, Cal, who tire of his high-handedness. He manipulates others around him, and is knowingly complicit in the unfolding of the “terrible happenings” that are skipped around and drawn in oblique terms, at times

Harry’s narrative voice, and hence the whole lens through which the novel is focalised, becomes more disturbed until his grip on reality dissolves almost entirely. By the close of the book, he narrates events from the position of a deranged adult, and we realise with chilling certainty where Harry’s life has led as he recalls the events of that summer, by now long ago. It would be possible to dwell on the inconsistencies the shift in voice represents; it is hard to imagine how, for instance, the storyteller of a fairy tale can be the same person as the first-person child narrator who narrates most of the novel unaware of the true significance of the events unfolding all around him. The voice of the unhinged adult into which Harry develops surely complicates matters even further. If the voice of the novel feels by turns distant, innocent, familiar and profoundly disturbed, then perhaps we ought to regard the novel as a cracked masterpiece, bearing flaws that refuse to iron out and resolve themselves. But on the other hand we can recognise Sydney Bridge Upside Down as a fearless novel that compels us utterly through the subtle, shifting registers of its language, and whose nooks and crannies of plot invite and thwart clear understanding. This is a novel that – despite the associations that might be made with the gothic yarns of Morrieson or Ian Cross’s The God Boy – avoids easy categorisation, forcing us to recalibrate our expectations of the novel itself.

In particular, Sydney Bridge Upside Down registers a departure from the straightforwardly social realist fiction that had held sway in New Zealand for much of the preceding three decades. Ironically, Ballantyne was regarded as a “son of Sargeson” for much of his career, an association that did not sit entirely comfortably with him. The mantle persists in some quarters: his first novel, 1948’s The Cunninghams, earned critical acclaim here and overseas for the gritty, authentic kitchen-sink realism with which he portrayed an East Cape town called Gladstone, probably based on Gisborne. But by the late 1960s Ballantyne was as frustrated as some of his critics by his apparent refusal to let anything exciting happen in his novels. As Evans has put it, the trouble with writing exciting realist fiction set in puritanical small-town New Zealand is that nothing exciting seems to happen in those sorts of places. Ballantyne’s answer to the problem was to more boldly mythologise the local than anyone had before attempted. The achievement was never recognised in his lifetime.

Although Sargeson praised it mightily, suggesting it was the New Zealand novel he’d been waiting for, Sydney Bridge Upside Down hardly raised a murmur when it was published. Aside from the occasional appearances on New Zealand literature courses such as Evans’s in the 1970s and 80s, it soon became all but invisible. When the book was mentioned, it was usually regarded as a piece of social-realist writing from a writer known for his social realism. In the early 21st century, it becomes apparent just how unsatisfying those terms are. Perhaps that helps explain some of its long time in the critical wilderness. Sydney Bridge Upside Down is a gothic masterpiece that subverts many of the norms of realist fiction in a way that justifies its reputation as not only one of the most important local novels of the 1960s, but one whose terms seem clearer with the benefit of hindsight and thus resonate even more insistently today.

SYDNEY BRIDGE UPSIDE DOWN, by David Ballantyne (Text Classics, $15.99).

Hamish Clayton won the Best First Book Award for Fiction at this week’s New Zealand Post Book Awards for his novel Wulf. He is writing a PhD dissertation on Sydney Bridge Upside Down

The New Zealand Listener Book Club

To join the conversation about Sydney Bridge Upside Down, visit the Book Club section of www.listener.co.nz, follow the Twitter account @nzlbookclub or go to the Facebook page New Zealand Listener Book Club. No review this month, but you can read Kate De Goldi’s introduction to the novel, listen to our podcasters discuss it (August 10) and read our “real-life” book group’s verdict (August 17).