Focus on character so we can 'get into their heads'

With 15 collections of poetry to her name and several awards, including the Prime Minister's Award for Poetry in 2008, Elizabeth Smither is usually seen as a poet who also writes in other modes.

Elizabeth Smither
Penguin, $30, pbk

Reviewed by Lawrence Jones.

However, Lola is her fifth novel and she also has five collections of short stories, and these works demand to be seen in their own terms as prose fiction, not as a kind of dilute poetry.

She implied as much in her interview last month on Plains FM when she said each genre had its distinct qualities, and that for her the "heart" of a novel was characters with whom we could engage so that we felt we had got "into their heads".

Her novels are rich in imagery and beautifully phrased moments of insight, but these are not separable beauties but are parts of an organic whole, for they are focused on character.

Revealingly, Smither has said that a recent novel she has "particularly loved" is Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, for Lola has much in common with it.

Like that novel, it focuses on an older contemplative character especially concerned with friendship, family, death and the life of the spirit, and it has similarly memorable images and moments of what Smither called "psychological delicacy" in Robinson, such as Charles, Lola's lover-friend, shown wishing to develop his relationship with Lola but hampered by the demands of his self-centred, recently divorced daughter and wondering "if he could extract himself from a child he was slowly admitting he no longer loved", while Lola is seen observing him and understanding that "either he would find the strength and do his best and leave, or he would be caught, as a biographer was caught, in the toils of a character daily becoming more disagreeable".

And there are the memorable images, such as Lola observing her new grandson "mastering" his mother's breast "as if it were an instrument he was learning to play": "The dark damp head, warm from sleep, was clamped to the breast, his face buried in the softness, his cheeks moving in and out, the gurgle as the milk ran down his throat was music to Flannery's ears".

Like Gilead, Lola is a book to be savoured in a slow reading, not one to dash through for an exciting plot.


The unifying thread is Lola as she finds at 63, with the death of her husband and then of her dear maimed friend Alice to whom she had devoted herself, that she must reinvent herself, move away from the family funeral business in a Victoria town to which she had adapted, and make a new life built more on her own taste and needs rather than the service of others.

The last half of the novel traces her explorations - her becoming resident in an Art Deco hotel in Napier, her "adoption" of a string quartet to become its manager, her relationship with Charles, an older divorced man.

She is left at the end possibly ready to enter in a kind of semidetached menage a trois with Charles and the more passive Luigi, who simply wants to be near her and live in her shadow.

To capture Lola and her life Smither has effectively used a narrative method similar to that of her The Sea Between Us: no big, dramatic scenes, but rather a series of brief third-person sections, moving back and forth between past and present, often in Lola's memory, with the point of view likewise moving around so that we see into the mind not only of Lola but also of the people who matter in her life.

Smither has said that "the personal is unavoidable in writing", that "you leave your fingerprints over everything", and the fingerprints on Lola are the same as those on her poetry and her short stories, but in each case the object formed by those fingers is different.

Like C. K. Stead or Vincent O'Sullivan, she has found appropriate ways of expressing an individual sensibility in different genres.

Lawrence Jones is an emeritus professor of English.


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