The past is always with us. In Shonagh Koea's novels, it is also something from which we struggle to escape.
Although it is some years since her last novel, Yet Another Ghastly Christmas, that same preoccupation is still present.
With characteristic wit and irony, Koea explores a sinister past of abuse and exploitation. Her narrator, Ellis Leigh, sits by her window looking out, tends her garden and walks by the sea. She seems vulnerable, a widow alone in a hostile, restless world.
Koea subtly limns the shape of a mind skewed by trauma and domination, to the extent that Ellis seeks seclusion as a refuge from life itself. The driving question that underlies all of Ellis's thoughts and observations is, what has caused this? Koea deftly keeps this secret right until the end of the novel. It is the effects on a fragile mind that are her focus.
Now by herself in a new town, Ellis recalls her past. Her history seems to mirror fiction, where "the heroine is often lonely or socially isolated", except that Ellis will meet no "kindly man" who will offer "security". Quite the opposite, in fact. Even her childhood had its dark undertones, feeling unwelcome on holiday on a farm. Her father is violent and abusive. As she grows up, so her world becomes one of "disappointment, fear, mistreatment and debasement".
It is clear that Ellis has become damaged by this process. Like an old record, she stops and finds herself stuck at times. In a highly irritating touch, Koea's clumsy method of suggesting this is to repeat words in close proximity to each other. So, "immaculate" crops up four times in three lines, "dark" five times in 10 lines. Thankfully, Ellis seems to grow beyond this.
Likewise, the narrative keeps looping back to a letter Ellis returned. Something awful has happened and it becomes clear that this epistle is connected to it. The house she lives in becomes "hellish", full of "terror" for her. Sudden shifts from first person narrative to third and back again compound this feeling. From what is she fleeing in her "journey to subjection"?
In her former town, Ellis's circle of friends diminishes. Initially on its periphery lies Martin Dodd, whose name suggests the role he will play. Unfortunately, in Dodd she trusts.
Dodd is rich, single and arrogant, a wine snob, and Ellis is "almost mesmerised" by him. He is "masterful and creamy", a big fish in a small pond of provincial dilettantes, a predator on the prowl. Koea's characterisation of this "mellifluous" and "self-possessed" manipulator of women is in itself masterful.
The novel is a study in pernicious and devious abuse, condoned and excused if the perpetrator is a popular bon viveur and pillar of the community. It reeks of a society that looks up to avuncular and apparently benign characters - shades of Jimmy Savile Down Under?
The above may sound as if the novel is all dark and troubling. It is not. Koea's wit lifts it. Ellis may be deeply troubled but she does not lose her sense of irony. She is an astute observer of others, with a sharp eye for botanical detail.
It is always a treat to read a new Koea. Landscape with Solitary Figure shows Koea maturing into an expert at the suggestive power of detail. She has wrapped the core of abuse which lies at the story's centre in layers of observation by a mind which, although it may be troubled, has not lost its sharpness. In Ellis' case, seclusion seems eminently the best response. The escape from her past is a richly rewarding experience.
LANDSCAPE WITH SOLITARY FIGURE Shonagh Koea Vintage $30
- Sunday Star Times