Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 22, 2013

The Crocus Hour (2008), by Charlotte Randall

The Crocus HourI admire New Zealand author Charlotte Randall’s writing: I was entranced by Hokitika Town (see my review) and wanted to read more of her work so I tracked down The Crocus Hour (2008) via interlibrary loan.  I didn’t enjoy it as much as Hokitika Town but I still think she’s a fascinating author and intend to read her other novels: Dead Sea Fruit (1995); The Curative (2000); Within the Kiss (2002); and What Happen Then, Mr Bones? (2004).

The story centres around a rather odd character called Henry David whose daughter Sally has gone missing on the island of Crete some time in the 1980s.  The unnamed narrator, a figure so shadowy that at first I thought he was female, meets Henry and becomes first fascinated, and then obsessed by him.  On Crete, he spends long hours listening to Henry dissect the story of Sally’s disappearance and he also joins Henry in retracing the frustrating search.  He meets Jane, who was travelling with Sally but doesn’t seem to have liked her much.  She is unsympathetic to Henry and very tactlessly thinks he should move on.   That seems cruel, because the pain of having a missing child must surely be unendurable, and although Randall doesn’t linger over lurid speculations, the reader can’t help but imagine some kind of ghastly fate befalling his daughter.

But Henry is not a character who arouses much sympathy.  He is bombastic and opinionated, and he bombards the narrator about the Greek history and culture that he ‘ought to know about’ as if he were a delivering lectures at a university.  Quite why the narrator not only puts up with this but ends up trekking across the world to join him on the South Island isn’t clear.  I suspected a homosexual attraction, but Henry isn’t gay…

Henry becomes even more odd at home in New Zealand.  He has a sumptuous garden – which a Rasputin-like herbalist raids to create strange and possibly toxic concoctions for Henry’s sick wife, who eventually dies.  There is something strange about her illness – it may even be psychosomatic – but Henry’s contemptuous aggression towards the herbalist is very odd indeed (even to someone like me who has no patience at all with quackery).

But then we are never really sure about Henry’s character anyway.  On the one hand the narrator seems fascinated by him, and yet at other times he seems to have his measure.  The bombastic Henry as described by the narrator is not the same as the gentler man who eventually narrates some of the story himself.  We get a different impression of Jane, too, when she narrates the third section of the story: she has had a dysfunctional family life in circumstances that made me wonder whether she was actually Sally herself, and that for some reason Henry didn’t recognise her.  Why is the narrator so judgemental and selective in what he tells the reader about Henry and Jane?

The story is riddled with allusions to Greek myth.  The narrator takes a copy of Ulysses with him to Crete, but finds himself unable to read it.  There are Henry’s lectures and of course there is the title’s allusion to Persephone playing in the crocus field when Hades abducted her and raped her.  In Henry’s garden there are allusions to Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, (nowhere) (a book that I have on my TBR but have never got round to reading).

But the most enigmatic allusion is on page 291: the narrator is reminded of a thought experiment called Schrödinger’s cat which – as I understand it – refers to a state where a creature in a sealed box (the cat) can be both alive and dead at the same time, so obviously Randall is playing with perception rather than reality.  Jane seems utterly convinced that Sally is lost to her father forever, and Henry is equally convinced that she is not and in his old age has a conversation with the Grim Reaper where he pleads for more time to find her.

Perhaps, ultimately, Randall is posing the question, in an unsentimental way: when it is reasonable to give up hope about a missing child?  What can reality ever be, for a parent of a missing child?

While there was aspects of this novel that I found confusing, the writing never failed to entrance.   Randall’s skill in depicting settings is brilliant.  Here’s a sample:

My second trip through the Waste Lands was more interesting than the first because I knew what lay in store.  I knew the plains would soon give way to a wild wind-buffeted landscape of soaring peaks.  I knew, because the day was fine, that the light would be fierce, as if coming straight from the torch of a god unschooled in Christian modesty.  When we made our first stop at a picnic table near a forest, I stepped out of the car into a great silence.  I could hear everything: the bleating of lost sheep by the ford, the wingbeats of rare falcons, the crack and road of distant avalanches, the heartbeats of minute pilgrims.

Soon after our stop the metal road became narrower and windier, with a precipitous drop on the right-hand side.  Then we turned a corner to a sight that, to this day, is my vision of paradise – a fearsome paradise, to be sure, one that had banished human presence and the small scale that it generally prefers.  This paradise was forked, stretching for miles in two directions, both consisting of blue-black mountains capped with fresh snow and disappearing into unearthly light. (p. 293)

But despite these evocations of New Zealand’s glorious scenery, there is something claustrophobic about this novel.  The tense relationships between the three main characters, and the uneasy way that they are inextricably linked despite their fluctuating hostilities, suggests that Henry exerts a power over them that lies at the heart of the mystery.

Author: Charlotte Randall
Title: The Crocus Hour
Publisher: Penguin New Zealand, 2008
ISBN: 9780143008927
Source: Glenelg Libraries, via interlibrary loan.

See also this perceptive review by Nicholas Reid at NZ Books.

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