Saturday, December 11, 2010

A book worth talking about... Relief

This is Anna Taylor's first book, published after gaining an MA in Creative writing at Victoria University in New Zealand. A good creative writing course and these are good stories. What will be surprising to readers from the UK in particular, is that a new writer managed to get a collection of short stories published straight from school, so to speak. But that doesn't seem to be so unusual in New Zealand, a country which has a long tradition of short story appreciation. The Maori people are steeped in an oral tradition.  Television came late to these shores and radio stories were the norm. Plus there's a long history of writing letters to relatives 'back home'. Letters full of the stories of immigration and settlement... right up into the 1950s and 60s. I'd go as far as to say until the birth of emails and Skype usurped the familiar blue aerogramme. So, New Zealanders are used to telling stories.

Books, however, are a different matter. When I was at school in New Zealand, 'proper' books all seemed to come from Europe or America.  And the stories within them didn't represent New Zealand life at all. So I can understand the backlash that arose when New Zealand publishing houses got off the ground. They wanted books that showed New Zealanders doing Kiwi things and representing this country rather than England or America or anywhere else overseas. It was seen as an important element in the shaping of the nation that New Zealanders should represent themselves to the world and especially to each other. 'Overseas' became a foreign place.  Well, that was all well and good and certainly had its place in the struggle to shape and define New Zealand's identity. But goodness, it was a bit stifling, wasn't it? It was the reason many writers moved off shore and never came back.

It's still the case that New Zealand book publishers and magazine editors like to see that a writer has a connection to this country, but it's refreshing to see that they are not as strict in their guidelines as they used to be. It seems that people like Fleur Adcock and Lloyd Jones can still be claimed as New Zealanders while pursuing their careers elsewhere - as indeed did Katherine Mansfield.  Overseas is not as foreign as it used to be.

So, it's very refreshing to find a collection of stories by a young New Zealand writer who doesn't hammer home the fact that her characters are in New Zealand. There are few clues to locations beyond descriptions of fairly generalized landscapes, and it doesn't matter. The stories are about people going about their unexceptional lives and in the main, muddling through. The situations are universal and arise from misunderstandings and human frailties. A guest who chooses to fast for Christmas; an intruder foiled by a bee; a sister's determination to stand by her accused brother, even in the face of small doubts; a boy who trusts his father to put things right.

Taylor's language is straightforward and unassuming, poignant and comic.

Not all the stories worked for me, but those that did worked very well indeed. Many have inconclusive endings which I particularly like, but you are not left completely in the lurch. A pervasive tone at the end of most of the stories is a sense of relief... hence the title. It's not a book of New Zealand short stories. It's a book of stories by a New Zealand writer.

No comments:

Post a Comment