new novels from older New Zealand authors, one a first novel,
and the other perhaps a last, and both sure to be in the
running for New Zealand Book of the Year when that award
John Sinclair's The Phoenix Song reminds me of the
memoirs, mostly written by Chinese women, about life in
communist China (Wild Swans etc) that appeared after
Mao Zedong's death signalled a change in China's policy on
contact with the West.
Indeed, reading Sinclair's novel, with its narrative in the
hands of a Chinese female, I had to keep reminding myself it
was a 50ish Kiwi bloke pulling the strings.
The novel's first 70 or so pages also require some quantum
mind shifts, as the narrator's perspective leaps about
between time zones: after she was born, before she was born,
and the present, which is New Zealand sometime in the future.
It's a somewhat confusing discourse anchored by events in
Harbin, Manchuria, where the narrator's parents met and
married, finding their feet as communist leader and doctor
respectively, while war with the Japanese and the civil war
between nationalists and communists raged around them.
Just to complicate matters, Harbin is a melting pot of
nationalities, with 50,000 White Russians finding refuge from
communism and a significant number of Jewish people finding
refuge from Christians. So our narrator, nurtured and taught
violin by a Russian couple who share digs with her mother,
has a more rounded perspective as far as loyalties are
Once past the twists and turns of family relationships,
including that with a father she barely knows, the narrative
becomes a straightforward story of a gifted child removed
from the care of loving parents and placed in an institution
to develop a talent that will lead to worldwide acclaim for
both herself and her country. In Xiao Magou's case (she gets
a Chinese name on page 86) it's to the Shanghai Conservatory
of Music, where most of the tutors are Russian.
Xiao's knowledge of their language makes her useful for
spying, so she's housed in the Russian compound and ordered
to listen to her teachers' private conversations. Since the
author records these in some detail it stretches credibility
to some extent.
Between snitching, Xiao's talent and reputation develop and
she's allowed to travel to Russia and beyond (chaperoned of
course) to give concerts and reap plaudits for herself and
her country's political system. On her travels she meets her
Kiwi husband to be.
Minor narrative flaws aside, The Phoenix Song is a
major work, meticulously researched, mostly credible, and
with a special historical fun moment reprised - a performance
of a new Chinese violin concerto in the presence of the
Russian leader, Premier Khrushchev, that is a rip-off of a
Shostakovich composition. Music lovers will also appreciate
the author's talent for describing how performers live with
and for their music.
Risk, C.K. Stead's offering, is a thoroughly modern
21st-century novel that follows the fortunes of Sam Nola, a
Kiwi solicitor living in Auckland who, just as his marriage
is crashing, hears from a daughter in France he never knew
existed, fathered during his OE in the late 1970s. Sam
decides, what the heck, and leaves wife and two sons to meet
the daughter and relocate to London, where he finds a lush
job with an American bank.
All set for a cosy domestic scenario with Sam finding his
feet and a new love interest? Yes and no. For 9/11 has
profoundly changed the political scene, and divided the
country over whether an invasion of Iraq with its weapons of
mass destruction is justified.
With bank failures lurking on the horizon, Sam's boss dies
mysteriously, while a harassed money-trader colleague can't
wait to quit so he can followed his true love - writing
poetry. This gives Stead the excuse to insert some really
beautiful pieces of his own poetry into the narrative.
But it's the relationships that swirl around Sam that hold
the interest. A handsome, well-off, mid-40s Kiwi of Croatian
descent naturally finds plenty of opportunities to meet and
sleep with desirable women and mingle with the cafe-society
He also has the necessary aplomb to handle relationships with
his new daughter's family, including the daughter's mother,
Sam's young love, and a Croatian cousin he meets on a
business trip to Zagreb.
I couldn't put Risk down, so absorbing were the
interwoven themes of filial and personal relationships, dirty
politics and money, and a believable, sympathetic hero. Move
over Ian Fleming and McEwan, here comes James, I mean, C. K.
Stead. I hope it's made into a movie.
- Ian Williams is a Dunedin writer and