Salt Picnic by Patrick Evans – book review

by Charlotte Grimshaw / 10 August, 2017

Author Patrick Evans. Photo/Victoria Birkinshaw

An author responds imaginatively to Janet Frame’s turbulent time on Ibiza.

Patrick Evans’s new novel is part of a trilogy that, he says, reflects the influence of Janet Frame on his creative imagination and his understanding of the world. The first, Gifted, focused on the relationship between Frame and Frank Sargeson. The second, The Back of His Head (2015), was a satire on literary fame; now Salt Picnic is Evans’s “imaginative response” to the period Frame spent on the Spanish island of Ibiza in 1956 and 1957.

Since Gifted featured real people, Evans couldn’t avoid being judged on his accuracy, with readers admiring his skilful ventriloquism, and others pointing out errors in the portrayal. Although Evans acknowledges in his author’s note that Salt Picnic is his response to a period in Frame’s life, he maintains his new character, Iola Farmer, is not a representation of Frame. Instead, she’s simply “a young woman who is out in the world for the first time”.

Given the similarities, though, individual readers will vary in their willingness to suspend comparisons with Frame, particularly since the author’s note lists research on her time in Ibiza. If anyone reading Gifted had the faint sense of Frame held captive by the writer while being forced to bend to his will, this new set-up won’t entirely dispel that impression.

Evans has said his motivation for focusing on this time and location in Frame’s life (while depicting a different woman altogether) came from the capacity Frame had to “find cultural and historical fault lines and go there”. She had, as he puts it, “an almost naive, innocent feel for the Ground Zero of mid- to late-20th-century history”.

Ibiza in the time of Franco was that sort of “Ground Zero”. Evans has created a vivid, intensely detailed portrait of a community battered by violence, so traumatised by the horrors of the Spanish Guerra that a culture of willed forgetting prevails. Divisions between the leftists and the Francoites simmer, with bitter feuds and old hatreds surfacing, yet the past is never openly acknowledged.

Iola rents a room in the town, where she tries to write, learn the language and acclimatise. A silent watcher, as inexperienced and awkward as a child, she puzzles, misinterprets, invents and mistranslates.

Unlike Frame, Iola doesn’t go in for humour, nor is she verbally witty. She’s passive and helpless, struggling to make connections. She crouches on the floor, writing in pencil on scraps of paper. She has little understanding of what’s happening, and frequently has no idea why she does things. This is typical of her thought processes: “… she’s not quite sure any more what it was that happened back then at the lagoon. It’s as if she doesn’t know how to think about it.”

Like Frame, Iola has a relationship with an American on Ibiza. In Iola’s case, the affair possibly results in sex and perhaps a pregnancy, and possibly a miscarriage, although it may just be her period. Iola is supposed to be a dreamer who blends fact and fiction, but Evans portrays her as so bewildered that she seems almost autistic, and the strange feeling rises, again, of a character imprisoned by the writer – visions of the captive Frame, perhaps. It’s an oddity of Evans’s own making, one that the reader can’t help registering. It only makes the novel more interesting, though. As Iola struggles to interpret the historical fault lines, a compelling sense of place emerges: the cruel history, the savagery beneath the beauty, the “thisness” of Iola’s world.

Salt Picnic, by Patrick Evans (Victoria University Press, $30).

This article was first published in the November 18, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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