It took longer than I expected to read The Peastick Girl - because it is just soooo good to read. On almost every page there is an arresting image, a deftly-expressed insight, or a perceptive commentary about New Zealand life. It’s not a page-turner: it’s a book to savour, to provoke contemplation, to mull over.
This thread, so cogently expressed by the Russian émigré Nikolai, permeates the entire novel:
‘When people have a broken history, when it has been suppressed, the truth gathers differently, in the little backwaters and pools, in the little lonely places there is always someone who knows’ (p463).
The Peastick Girl is the story of Teresa Matheson, who has returned to Wellington after time away in Australia, in search of the truth about herself. She’s in emotional turmoil because her life is in a mess, and it has more to do with her mother than this excerpt reveals: Hugo is only part of the reason why.
‘How would you feel,’ he would like to ask another woman, ‘if some man came to you and said, Look, I love you but you have to know I was your mother’s lover once.’ How would you feel?’
What is marvellous about this book is the way Hancock makes us privy to the inner world of all her characters, not just the would-be feisty feminists but also the world of men. In a community where rugby seems to define manhood, sensitive men like Dorothy’s sculptor get a ‘worn-out look‘ in New Zealand, ‘a rugged look, as if protecting themselves has been as arduous as slogging through the hills‘ (p159). Not the sort of man that most of us would feel sympathy for, Hugo is tormented, angst-ridden by the ghastly situation that has arisen from no ‘malice or wickedness’ of his own, but sheer bad luck, fated to fall in love with Vivian’s daughter. He is bereft of his ‘brief manly confidence‘ because
… he was lost: The situation was too big for him, he didn’t have the scale and strength to wrest it back into true, to somehow take it over and make her accept that it wasn’t such a big thing, not really, not all this time ago, to comfort her with that and at the same time comfort himself too, he could be comfortable if she could be. On the other hand, if he just let it go – well, that was the trouble, he couldn’t, he couldn’t, now, just scuttle away, he would be so diminished in his own eyes, and such a fake version of himself that he couldn’t imagine going on with the usual forms of his life …
… No matter how he looked at it the prospect of happiness receded from him in every possible way, a low shoreline, dim with unhappiness. (p 164)
Wellington’s rugged landscape along the the Kapiti coast and the weather are integral to every scene, indoors and out. In this respect The Peastick Girl reminded me a little of Wulf by Hamish Clayton, where climbing plants and harsh rock-faces insinuate themselves into an environment infused with ancient myth. Myth weaves itself into Hancock’s novel too, because Teresa – who has written a quest novel for younger readers – is haunted by the Russian boyfriend she left behind in Melbourne. He likes to analyse her; he thinks her distress is because she is possessed by the demon Arkeum (a demon resistant to my Google searches, alas), by a foulness within. Hancock plays out the dark secret that lies at the heart of this novel with great economy and skill. Suffice to say that if you think you’ve worked out what it is, you are almost certainly wrong.
The confused state of contemporary feminism (which women of my generation often find bewildering) underpins the way the 20/30-something characters think and behave. Vivian, mother to Teresa, Mollie and Cass, still looms large in their lives even though she died long ago in mysterious circumstances. There are other strong, powerful older women in the novel, especially the Maori elder Rangi but Hancock reveals some comic contradictions in the old-fashioned attitudes held by younger men and women. Just after a feminist party (organised to conciliate rival groups) Cass is told by one of the young men that ‘a woman needs a good man. Maybe not all the time, but some of the time’ (p372), and she agrees to let him find someone for her. She isn’t even going to own the quest…
Cass, fresh from an inconclusive attraction to an engineering student whose mind is on rugby practice, thinks that refusing to make coffee for men is a political act of some consequence. But – reeling from her discovery of her brother-in-law’s infidelity - she blames The Other Woman for taking another feminist’s man, as if Gil had no responsibility for it. Dorothy is therefore a ‘predator’, and Gil, presumably, is the hapless male unable to resist. Cass steals Dorothy’s warm black coat, leaving her literally and symbolically unprotected, and takes the sexy pink cape as well, defeminising her. But she does nothing to Gil.
Perhaps being held solely culpable by fellow feminists is why Dorothy has reached a curious impasse with her sense of gender identity:
‘Oh, I’m not really melancholy,’ Dorothy said. ‘I’m just at a crossroads. I’ve got to the point … where I don’t think life’s a matter of finding the right man. My problem is that I want to be a man – without having to stop being a woman. I want to be the woman I am but live like a man. I’d like to be me as a man.’ (p356)
Gil is almost quaint in his paternalistic attitudes towards his wife Mollie and she puts up with it because she thinks he ‘rescued’ her (p194) (as if she were a damsel in distress and he is the White Knight?) As Hugo says, even her ‘goodness’ is a fault: ‘she must have gobbled up more than her share of the family’s virtues’ (p 161). I think book groups would have a marvellous time discussing these revealing episodes…
Indigenous politics is an interesting motif. There are those who understand the extent of Maori dispossession, and those who do not, while others come just in time to realisation of the offence that can be unintentionally caused. When Teresa returns to Wellington she decides to write a play, a New Zealand rendering of Shakespeare’s The Duchess of Malfi. But she eventually decides that she ought not do this because it would be ‘another ghastly insult to the Maori, bringing another European tragedy out here’ (p 382). This made me wonder if this fear of giving offence is a widespread attitude in the creative arts, both in New Zealand and here in Australia.
Like other readers, apparently, I was puzzled by the title, an enigmatic choice not fully resolved for me by the author’s explanation to NO magazine. But this is a very impressive debut novel, rich with allusion and compelling in its depiction of modern life. The layers of meaning are carefully constructed around a fascinating tragi-comedy of manners and the ambiguity of the conclusion is completely satisfying. The Peastick Girl deserves a wide audience.
You can read a sample chapter on the Black Pepper website.
Author: Susan Hancock
Title: The Peastick Girl
Publisher: Black Pepper Publishing, 2012
Source: Review copy courtesy of Black Pepper Publishing