From our reviewers: NZ reads

Last updated 15:00 16/10/2012

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From The Southland Times book reviewers.

Speaking Frankly: the Frank Sargeson Memorial Lectures 2003-2010
Edited by Sarah Shieff (Cape Catley, RRP $32)

Letters of Frank Sargeson
Selected and edited by Sarah Shieff (Random House NZ Vintage, RRP $50)

Both reviewed by Rosemarie Smith

Who better than CK Stead to quote in explaining the significance of these two volumes.

For a generation of writers, Sargeson's humble Takapuna bach was "the still point around which the literary consciousness of New Zealand seemed to revolve".

The books are best read in tandem; the lectures supplementing the monologue of the letters. Christine Cole-Catley pays tribute to "that multi-talented, wholly original, prickly, witty and most generous of men - a man truly good, truly great-hearted".

Her children christened him "Frank the Bank" for his gifts of time, and enthusiasm as well as goodies.

For their elders, it was his gifts for nurturing talent, though he also shared the little he had in material goods, his gruff hospitality, copious fresh produce, and his infamous citrus wine.

Graeme Lay tells how Sargeson's simple advice turned a 100 per cent rejection rate to instant 100 per cent publication success, and he still savours the depths of Sargeson's admonition to be "imaginatively truthful".

A congratulatory letter to RH Morrieson reflects what Lay describes as a total lack of arrogance or condescension, treating an aspiring writer almost as an equal.

He was probably a fool to write, Sargeson says, apologetically. "But during the 10 or so years when I was learning to write and getting nothing published I could have done with a little encouragement."

The name of Sargeson's most famous mentoree, Janet Frame, crops up frequently in both volumes, with general agreement being that he literally saved her life by providing a safe refuge and teaching her how to deal with the world.

She was the "golden-headed little princess living at the bottom of the garden", and Sargeson was variously awed by her imaginative talent and intellect, infuriated, baffled, proud, attentive and exhausted by her neediness.

Among the many mentored by mail was Southland Boys' High teacher Alex Pickard, published as AP Gaskell. Sargeson observed they both had an intense interest in people - as distinct from ideas and theories - a powerful impulse to observe them, and to sympathise with their human condition.

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He later lamented that Gaskell wrote a few good stories, then dried up.

Another mysterious Southland reference of 1955 is to John Gillies - aka John Gill - novelist of Gore, a writer with "a genuine comic talent".

Praise indeed, but can anyone produce a copy of Voyages in Aspic?

The Parihaka Woman: An Epic Story of Love and War
By Witi Ihimaera (RH NZ Vintage, RRP $39)

Reviewed by Lesley Soper

Witi Ihimaera's 12th novel since 1973 weaves fact and fiction around the events that took place at Parihaka in the 1870s and 1880s.

The Parihaka story of the peaceful Taranaki settlement led by Te Whiti and Tohu, destroyed by war and land confiscation by fair means or foul, is perhaps one of the most disgraceful episodes in New Zealand history.

The story of Erenora, a strong, courageous and ingenious Maori woman who grew up at Parihaka under Te Whiti's protection after her parents were slaughtered, is an engrossing and often moving one.

We want her to win and to save her exiled husband, Horitana, even more so because Ihimaera creates a particularly unpleasant and evil settler protagonist for us to dislike.

When Erenora ventures out of Taranaki on a pilgrimage to track down Horitana and the other Parihaka men exiled for many years for doing nothing more than ploughing their fields, we follow her journey to Dunedin almost with prayers for her success.

After apologies for plagarism in his last novel, Ihimaera is careful in this one to quote from named sources, and even tells the story through the device of a retired Maori schoolteacher narrator exploring his own family history, rather than using the direct authorial voice.

Another fascinating detail is the borrowing of the Man in the Iron Mask story to explain Horitana's complete disappearance and the basing of Erenora on Beethoven's heroine Leonore in Fidelio. Like Shakespearian and operatic heroines, Erenora disguises herself as a boy for her quest. To continue the operatic/dramatic theme, Ihimaera even splits the sections of the book into "acts".

Well worth a read, and an ideal discussion book for book groups.

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