Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 17, 2018

Salt Picnic, by Patrick Evans #BookReview

Well, now, this is going to be a tricky book to review without ruining it for future readers!

Salt Picnic is third in Patrick Evans’ ‘Janet Frame’ trilogy, and IMO, it is definitely the best.  I have previously read and reviewed Gifted and The Back of his Head and appreciated Evan’s witty and provocative sense of humour.  But though Salt Picnic has mildly comic moments, it’s entirely different in tone and the narrative tension makes it a more compelling novel.  It’s been shortlisted for the 2018 Ockham New Zealand Award for Fiction.

It’s not, as far as I can tell, even loosely based on Janet Frame’s time on the island of Ibiza on the fringes of Franco’s Spain.  (Evans says it’s not, in his afterword too).  Rather, it is inspired by the naïveté of a young would-be New Zealand novelist, in this case called Iola Farmer, who is travelling the world for the first time in the 1950s and finding herself in a community still scarred by wars that she knows next-to-nothing about (i.e. the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) and WW2).   The novel is written entirely from her perspective, though the narrative is in third person.  The persona that develops is shy, easily confused and easily panicked, unsophisticated but not stupid, and highly imaginative yet determined to make sense of events even though she has only phrasebook Spanish. It takes her a while to work out that there is also another entirely different local language called Ibicenco which is spoken by some of the characters rather than Castellano.

Two characters, neither of whom are quite what they appear to be, explain this rustic community to her.  She meets an American called Daniel (and falls for him) and eventually, also the doctor who owns the house in which she boards after fleeing sexual assault in the town’s hotel.  Though the doctor doesn’t turn up till Part III, it is these two who speak English who interpret puzzling aspects of life in the village.  All the other characters have been impacted, one way or another by the Spanish Civil War which preceded the outbreak of WW2, but they do not talk about it because Franco is firmly in control and the horror of the island’s past is still too raw.  So Iola’s understanding of this history comes to her in bits and pieces and always second-hand from the two English-speakers who weren’t even on the island at the time.

Concepción and Magdalena, who cook and clean for the doctor, take Iola in as a paying guest at La Casa de las Liebres, the House of the Hares. She has arrived stripped of her identity because all her luggage has gone missing and she has only her clutch.  So she has no clothes, no typewriter, and the manuscript of her entire novel that she wrote while in London is gone too, while her ‘colonial’ accent has become absorbed in the multiplicity of English accents as well.  Concepción and Magdalena provide her with the clothing of a peasant girl, and she eases into daily life at the house, taking in its distinctive routines of Spanish mealtimes, weekly baths in a tub lugged up to the second storey, and collecting, buying and preparing food.  But always with an impulse that all authors will understand, she recycles chocolate wrappers as paper and steals pencils from the doctor’s cabinet so that she can write, write and write.

Iola’s bewilderment is exacerbated by her language difficulties.  Magdalena and Conceptión are sisters, she thinks, but they don’t speak the same language.   Magdalena speaks what is vaguely comprehensible to a beginner learner of Spanish (Castillian, the official language of Franco’s Spain) but Concepción speaks the local language which is completely incomprehensible.  Clearly both of them understand each other so it’s some kind of political statement or a power struggle.  Whatever the reason, (until it is explained by the doctor later on) it mystifies Iola who doesn’t ever fully understand what’s being said, nor does she understand the relationships between the sisters and the other people who are also doing jobs in and out of the house.

What also mystifies Iola is the doctor.  Magdalena has told her that’s German.  He has departed suddenly and without explanation and they don’t know when he will return.  But when he does turn up, he’s a quintessential English gentleman, complete with cravat, pipe, outdated copies of The Times and a preference for bacon and eggs, roasts and Yorkshire puddings. He’s quite indignant when Iola asks him about being German, and identifies himself as Ralph Almond, born in Epsom, in Surrey.

Daniel, the dashing young American who sets her heart fluttering isn’t what he seems either.  He claims to be a photographer but he doesn’t seem to take any shots, and he’s peculiarly interested in the absent ‘German’ doctor.  Influenced by having seen the film ‘Roman Holiday‘ Iola romanticises this American as another Gregory Peck on a Vespa, but he turns out to be a disappointment. Yes, hearts do get broken, but not in the way the reader anticipates.

In fact what happens is most odd.  It’s not just that Iola is so confused by all that’s happening and the way that the people around her seem unstable and out of focus.  This could be attributed to her mental state, or perhaps to some pills that she took for seasickness.  Or she could just be a bit dim.  But the alert reader (unlike the reviewer at the Booksellers NZ blog who isn’t even embarrassed to have completely missed the point of the book) will notice all sorts of inconsistencies and plot reversals – and authors like Patrick Evans don’t make mistakes like that.   These peculiarities are deliberate.  A disturbing tone emerges and benign characters become sinister and unsettling.   I’m not going to give the game away but I’ll give some clues which you can skip until after you’ve read the book if you like.

I finally twigged what Evans was doing on page 380 in the first paragraph about Daniel in his second incarnation, and when I’d finished the book as I backtracked to sort out my thoughts, I found other clues on page 211 where Iola is shocked at herself at the top of the page, and at the bottom of it, relieved that she hadn’t first done as she thought she might; and on page 306 where she decides to deal with the doctor’s implausible story.  There are possibly more which I’ll find with re-reading…

I enjoyed this book as I read it, but I absolutely loved it when I’d finished and could admire it for what it is!

For another review, visit Nicholas Reid’s blog Reid’s Reader.

That clever cover design is by Keely O’Shannessy.

Author: Patrick Evans
Title: Salt Picnic
Publisher: Victoria University Press, Wellington, New Zealand, 2017
ISBN: 9781776561698
Source: personal library, purchased from Fishpond $24.97

Available from Fishpond: Salt Picnic

 


Responses

  1. […] Salt Picnic by Patrick Evans (Victoria University Press), see my review […]

  2. That reviewer who “isn’t even embarrassed” is going to be me sooner rather than later probably. Don’t hesitate, just tell me, I’ll blush in private, and get on with my next review.

    • It is ok not to understand a book, (that’s inevitable in this game, especially if you read challenging books) but it is not ok, IMO, to do a public hatchet job on it when you admit that you haven’t read it properly.

  3. What a great summing up. I’m intrigued, and have just added this to my wish-list.

    • Thanks, Cath. If you are in Australia, you may find it difficult to find it in shops – though maybe if it wins the Indies will stock it. Fishpond ships for free from NZ.

  4. I’m unlikely to read this (I rarely read series…don’t know why except that perhaps I have a short attention span 😬). BUT that cover is sublime. I want it framed and hanging on my wall.

    • Oh, I’ve misled you, it’s not a series, not at all. Gifted is very, very loosely based on an episode in Janet Frame’s life while this one is only linked to her by the setting because Frame did visit Ibizia at one stage. But The Back of His Head is a satire on NZ’s literary community and its pretensions.


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