by JCL Purchase
This collection of nineteen short stories in 260 pages and almost 113,000 words offers something for everyone in the process of demonstrating the interconnectedness of people in a very small society. It does this through an ambitious and largely successful decision to have characters appear and reappear at different stages of their journey.
It needs to be said at the outset that Purchase is an absolute master of description; settings and backgrounds are laid out so that the reader can feel the wind, hear the birds, or get out of the way as hard-driven cars crunch across the gravel. This is not one-dimensional, for she is equally adept at describing people— a terminally-ill drug addict is described as vividly as his girlfriend’s ‘crooked smile’, while the account of Frank’s living arrangements in Maungaturoto evoke more than a slight wince. The author’s superb eye for character is supported by deep analysis of their psyche, and the result is a cast of players that are entirely credible for by far the most part.
As befits such a widely-drawn cast, the story settings are themselves eclectic, but most of them concern, in some way, the twin polarities of truth and falsehood. The opening story, for example, is that of an Elvis impersonator who is very good at what he does. However, it is impossible to miss the essential falsity of his life, all the way from the fact that his living is earned from imitation to the fact that part of his stage presence is a large, false penis. And he never quite solves the questions raised by his mother’s assertion that the real Elvis was his father.
Similarly, the verbosity of the narrator in ‘Apple of My Eye’ evokes the Shakespearean comment, “Methinks the man doth protest too much” and one wonders quite what aspect of her relationship with young Bobby is hidden within her lavish paean of praise for him.
Other stories owing much to falsehood include the addict mentioned above; a mother living her life through her errant daughter; a policeman owning every prejudice in the book who determines to eschew personal weakness, to focus on his job, to show leadership, to put his personal problems ‘on the back burner’—so that he can get back to Auckland by the weekend when the All Blacks are playing a test. Other stories in the same vein include the teacher who, in tennis terms, rather walks around her backhand in talking herself out of enforcing classroom standards upon closed-minded students who are something more than mildly bolshie, because she is tired, spent and seeking a quiet life.
While reality cuts in through the story of a capitalist who uses poor people’s labour to enrich himself and an ‘illegal’ nurse who tolerates sexual abuse for the sake of keeping a job, it’s not all negative. There is grim humour in the story of the difference in radicalism between ‘Think Big’ New Zealand and the Third Reich, and the power of love between two siblings, the products of shocking childhood neglect and abuse. Also showing the power of love is ‘Golden Girl’ in which a neglected teenager proves to an aptly-named Lazarus that his existence did not die with his wife, and that he still has a good and useful purpose.
The author’s use of register is also outstanding, and the stories ‘Queen of the Night’ and ‘Under the Pohutukawa Tree’ indicate mastery of her ability to convey dignity and verisimilitude through tone.
Are there drawbacks? Not many. Only the story ‘Lucked Out’ disappoints, with its dialogue so redolent of characters in a cowboy movie, and a most unlikely fight scene in the cockpit of a helicopter in flight, for not even ‘Muhammad Ali in his prime could have managed a right uppercut while flying left seat, as one does in aircraft.
But these are small things, and detract not at all from the quality of JCL Purchase’s searching examinations of the vagaries of the human spirit and the relationships to which they lead. From the stories of others to the autobiographical ‘The Journey’, this is a well-constructed work which will cause the reader to re-visit it as one compelling thought after another kicks in.
Author: JCL Purchase
Publisher: Lasavia Publishing
Available: bookshops; booksellers, or from the publisher 09-372 6500, email@example.com