Out of the frying pan, into the fire

Dunedin-based writer Paddy Richardson. Photo: Linda Robertson
Dunedin-based writer Paddy Richardson. Photo: Linda Robertson

Paddy Richardson's seventh novel Through The Lonesome Dark moves from small-town Blackball to the frontlines of World War 1. 

THROUGH THE LONESOME DARK
Paddy Richardson
Upstart Press

By JESSIE NEILSON

Paddy Richardson's seventh novel, Through the Lonesome Dark, heralds a change of genre and focus, turning towards historical fiction, here set in the muddy West Coast mining settlement of Blackball, outside of Greymouth.

Pansy, Otto and Clem are three childhood friends growing up in deep socialist territory. Unionists are strong in this blue-collar settlement, which was originally mapped by men in offices on the other side of the world. The mine is the town's lifeblood, and coal dust permeates the quality and shade of the air. Children of miners, their mothers are miners' wives, and these women expect no more from life. Solidarity is the rule. If a woman were to put on airs she would be on her own, we learn, with a long way to fall. As the narrator intones, it is the people who make a place, and this is a place to be proud of.

Pansy is our main character for much of the story, and alongside her two closest friends, she is a high achiever at school, where teachers try to raise the bar and push students for further education. However, Pansy's father Dan Williams is a violent drunk whose wife stays by him for the sake of loyalty to marriage vows. A "cold, crackling silence'' pervades. Teresa Williams is proud and continually beaten down. Any hopes Pansy may have to better herself look likely to be quashed by father Williams. Home for her, and for most families, means wet clothes drying over fires, mud and dampness, and relentlessly repetitive routines. Her mother suggests she turn to the convent as the only way out, but Pansy has more ambitious hopes.

From the opening scenes, Richardson lays out narrative voices that echo the characters and time in convincing pastiche. Pansy is comforted in hopelessness by the words of Robert Louis Stevenson ("And I must rise and leave my dell''), harking back to romantic idealism and the dreams of a better life. Yet, not only personal obstacles encroach as the turmoil of World War 1 grips Europe and seeps into Blackball. Life is unutterably changed, right down to the landscape of the individual, where ethnicity, political stance, social leanings and conscientious objecting, factors all previously smudged, have been brought to the fore.

A Dunedin-based writer, former Burns Fellow and creative writing teacher, who has a strong background in crime fiction, Richardson has a personal as well as creative interest in aspects of World War 1, in particular, Belgium and Arras, France, where the New Zealand Tunnelling Company was instrumental in developing sophisticated underground networks for Allied soldiers.

The novel's evocative title is a line from the poem "Suicide in the Trenches'' by English poet and soldier Siegfried Sassoon. Richardson's novel's focus twists towards desolated landscapes and bodies amid the wreckage, away from the clutch of intolerable domesticity.

Richardson has researched the role of the Tunnelling Company, intrigued by its contribution, which lives on in underground systems bearing New Zealand place names. As one of her characters discovers in his new role as a tunneller, the only way to deal with this kind of hell, to stop oneself from going mad, was "to plug up your eyes and your ears against what was happening to those poor lads up above you and get on with what you're doing''.

This novel has a precursor in Greymouth-born Bill Pearson's gritty Coal Flat (1963), also centred in Blackball, though fictionalised, and which takes place some decades later, straight after the end of World War 2.

In Through the Lonesome Dark, Richardson shows her ease at occupying challenging and varied voices in a fully detailed small town New Zealand setting of the past. Her narrative clearly shifts between two quite different locales and she handles this superbly. Apart from this novel being a strong work as a whole it is a treat to be immersed in a story set in a geographical and historical landscape that many of us know so well.

Jessie Neilson is a University of Otago library assistant.

 

Win a copy

The ODT has five copies of Paddy Richardson’s Through The Lonesome Dark to give away courtesy of Upstart Press. For your chance to win a copy, email books editor shane.gilchrist@odt.co.nz with your name and postal address in the body of the email, and ‘‘Lonesome Dark’’ in the subject line, by 5pm on Tuesday, June 20.

LAST WEEK’S WINNERS

Winners of last week’s poetry giveaway, courtesy of Auckland University Press:

Ian Wedde: Selected Poems: Lyn Cvjetan, of Dunedin, Marc Doesburg, of Dunedin, Yvonne Coughlan, of Dunedin.

Night Horse, by Elizabeth Smither: Francis Thompson, of Oamaru, Debbie Williams, of Dunedin, Chris Kaan, of Dunedin. 

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