Sunday, 26 November 2006

Grace is Gone, Kelly Ana Morey, 2004

GRACE IS GONE Kelly Ana Morey, Penguin, Auckland, 2004, 372 pages, paperback, NZ$28.
ISBN 0 14 301940 6

“I’m intrigued…Who would have thought that a small town in the middle of nowhere would have so many fantastic women? And they keep arriving. It’s something in the water, isn’t it?”

Known in the East Coast town of Meridian as ‘the Pakeha bone-cruncher’, Matt the tree-climbing osteopath, has every reason to be intrigued. Meridian is a dwindling rural community where people have done with less ‘for so long that their pleasures came contained in the moments that they made with their bare hands.’ Well, bare something. Billy Flower, for example has fathered twelve daughters, each by a different mother, and each named after a flower. While the children - Cherry, Willow, Plum, Calla, Jasmine, Saffron, Fern, Aspen, Holly, Olive, Flora and Poppy – are all carefully catalogued in this lively novel, their mothers are not.

Instead, the author craftily conceals this (and much other) information, releasing titbits throughout her story, so that the readers begin as far out of their depth as poor Matt, but gradually gather the whole whakapapa. The effect is exactly that of moving into a small town and slowly grasping the intricacy of the personal connections and relationships. This narrative technique provides a lively and entertaining portrait of a small town’s inhabitants but it is also like using a muslin bag to make apple jelly. The information drips out at its own pace. This could have been a frustrating process but Kelly Ana Morey is a consummate storyteller, so it makes her novel a delight.

Time gradually reveals almost everything, although we never do find out the origin of Jasmine, who is Billy’s whangai (adopted) niece. Nor for that matter do we discover how Billy makes a living, but if we stayed in Meridian a little longer, we’d surely discover that too.

Many people in Meridian have hidden depths. The Grace of the title, for example, is unusual in that although she is dead, she is often present as a ghost, seen (and taken for granted) by some residents. Nor is she one of Billy’s daughters. The main live character is Grace’s childhood friend, Cherry Sprite, the oldest of Billy’s daughters, who arrives back in Meridian after twelve years of OE, trailed by a new horse and a discarded husband. During the halcyon days before winter, Cherry visits her (many) relatives and renews her relationships.

Billy’s tribe is far-flung. The Biblical echoes are not accidental. Billy’s real name is Israel, while Noah, Moses, Jacob, Rachel, Esther, Isaiah, Adam and a female Aaron are also present. Matt offers Cherry an apple when they meet, and the start of the Third Millennium is suitably celebrated in the closing chapters. There are graceful references to Greek myths, Maori legends, popular music, the Wizard of Oz and even the Mickey Mouse Show. Shakespeare is a constant presence in Meridian, as Mali mounts an amateur production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that has some local resonances.

In the left-behind world of Meridian, men frequently prove elusive, often running away, or just shoving off. The women are the capable ones, left behind to run things. There is tragedy here, just behind the comedy

Readers of Morey’s first novel Bloom (2003) will find some familiar elements, including strong women, family bonds, benign ghosts and a soft spot for romantic fiction. They will also find a greater narrative confidence, which has produced an amazingly rich and dense novel, which is both funny and readable.

In a century they’ll be writing Ph.D. theses on Grace is Gone. The animals alone are worth a research paper. Future students may writhe over albino kingfishers, red herrings, mica-streaked hair and neenish tarts, let alone a moko-ed grandmother who drives a convertible, but today we have the luxury of simply enjoying this book. When was the last time you enjoyed a novel? You’ll enjoy reading this one.

Trevor Agnew

First published in The Press, Christchurch, New Zealand, on September 4th 2004.

Moko - tattoo
Pakeha - a non-Maori person, European

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