Private Nutshells

Janette Turner Hospital

  • Debatable Land by Candia McWilliam
    Bloomsbury, 216 pp, £15.99, June 1994, ISBN 0 7475 1708 8

There is something unsettling, something quietly provocative of inner debate, about Candia McWilliam’s titles, of which, so far, there are only three. They are attached to slim works that occupy the borderlands between novella and novel, between meditation and narrative, between ScotsLit and literature for which a national tag is irrelevant. And this in itself is unsettling: that a reputation of such substance and brilliance, and so elusive of categorisation, should spring from so few pages and from someone not yet forty years old.

McWilliam’s first novel, A Case of Knives (1988), a salt-and-vinegar romantic comedy for these hectic days of Aids, rough trade, and fanatic animal-rights crusaders, was highly acclaimed. Her second, A Little Stranger (1989), which tilts at the sinister shadowside of the familiar and domestic, reads as though Henry James had updated The Turn of the Screw for the late 20th century. Now in Debatable Land she jousts on against her big windmills: the whys and wherefores of unsettled characters and their off-kilter perceptions and the slippage of their language. She writes, that is, of lives and of ways of seeing and of verbal coinages that have become, quite literally, unsettled, destabilised, no longer at ease in old – or indeed, in any – dispensations; and so her titles give at the edges as soft riverbanks and seashores do, as political boundaries in the marginal countries that interest her are wont to do.

A Case of Knives is a case in point. Are the nouns concrete, metaphorical or abstract? Do they refer to the protagonist’s tools of trade – he is a heart surgeon – or to the legal trial of his knife-armed assailant? Or are they a symbolic allusion to radical severance of many kinds? As for A Little Stranger, even the syntax slides. Is ‘stranger’ nominal or adjectival? Does it refer to the new baby on the way, or to the young child so rapidly turning into someone unknown to his parents, or to the seemingly demure but menacing nanny hired to look after him? Or is it all a little stranger than that? What does ‘looking after’ mean? Are not the structures and vocabulary of ‘childminding’ a little odder than most? Do nannies mind about their status in a family? How should we mind children? Should we not mind them more?

Words and syntactical forms have this way of coming unravelled in McWilliam’s books; they knot and tangle and knit themselves into new shapes. This is serious business, attended to with meticulous wit. ‘Empty words were needed, and Logan had them,’ reflects Alec in Debatable Land, but he nevertheless finds himself, a European confronting the death of a child in a Pacific island, ‘moved by Logan’s finely spoken, sonorous, trite words’. Other speaking artefacts besides language follow the South Sea trade routes and announce themselves in assorted national accents. Cheese, for example. In Tahiti, at exorbitant cost, one can procure a cheese ‘that has travelled the world by three different forms of transport, signed all the relevant forms, hung about in at least two warehouses and remained absolutely unchanged by its experience’. To what code but the Napoleonic could it belong? ‘It is a narrow-minded cheese,’ avers an English voyager in the tropical but very French harbour of Papeete, ‘for narrow-minded French consumers.’ In the same harbour and on the same boat, another character (but one from the Scottish Borders) reflects that ‘the serious-mindedness of British biscuits is not accurately reproduced by any other nation’; but then this character ‘often expressed feelings about the English similar to those Logan held about the French’.

Land (its boundaries, history, cultural artefacts, associated accents, allegiances) is certainly endlessly debatable, as is one’s relationship to it; ocean less so. But perhaps it is in fact the ocean that is the ‘debatable land’ of the title, for certainly the ocean is the dominant presence in the book, and the six characters in search of a place or time or even a memory to call home are drawn to a sailing voyage precisely because of the ocean’s resistance to national labels and boundaries. Logan Urquhart, the Scots American skipper, for example, ‘had a great urge to romantic patriotism, yet what was his country, Scotland or America? – the one too small, the other too large, in his view. He escaped from them; his urge to romantic patriotism attached itself to the sea.’

Or perhaps the debatable land is the small sailing vessel, Ardent Spirit, which is home to the six dislocated unsettled characters for its voyage from the South Pacific islands to New Zealand. All at sea, and kings of infinite space, the characters nevertheless think obsessively of lands left behind and behave with fierce territoriality toward private nutshells of boat. ‘On a boat,’ thinks Elspeth (she of the Scottish Borders, and the wife of the skipper), ‘the vital prerequisite of feeling human is a small lozenge of space that is your own.’

Or perhaps the debatable land is Scotland, which is ambiguously ‘home’ to three of the crew: to Logan Urquhart the skipper, neither quite Scots nor fully American; to Elspeth, his insecure second wife from the debatable borderlands; and to Alec Dundas, a painter whose entire life has been spent in Edinburgh but who has signed up for the voyage and come so far from home ‘in order to see it clearly’.

Certainly Scotland is a ghostly presence (or endlessly debatable absence) behind all three McWilliam novels. (Like Alec Dundas, the novelist was born in Edinburgh, but was sent off to school in England at the age of 13, and now lives in Oxford.) Scotland has been adumbrated both from England and from the South Pacific long before this, of course, and its past history of deconstruction and of reconstructions-from-afar is evoked in the novel’s epigraph from the famously unsettled Robert Louis Stevenson:

The tropics vanish, and meseems that I,
From Halkerside, from topmost Allmuir,
Or steep Caerketton; dreaming gaze again.
                        Songs of Travel

This is the nature of the voyage for the Scots on board Ardent Spirit: their pasts and Scotland are constantly recollected, both in tranquillity and even more tellingly in storm.

The three non-Scottish crew members are peripheral figures in the novel, but they too are seeking a sea-change from assorted dislocations and unsettled states, or are fleeing the encumbrances of divided national allegiance. Nick Pederson, casualty of an extinct vocation (that of typesetting), has taken to sailing in order ‘to see the last places that are not blurred’. His wife crews on a different boat:

She’s a South African, the sea is covered with them ... Liberal whites who couldn’t bear it. The boat she’s on at the moment should be round here somewhere. She sends me her position on the globe when she can. I think of her with the same stars over her.

For both Nick and his wife, sailing is ‘a way to live without money’.

Sandro Hughes is a 24-year-old New Zealander, and ‘if the Scots are the most emigrated people on earth, the New Zealanders must have the most nationals afloat, outside of a navy.’ Sandro’s mother is from northern Italy and runs an Italian restaurant in Auckland. Sandro and his brother alternate their periods of absence from home in order to spare their mother ‘the loneliness of life with a man who had decided to resent [her] native land’. ‘Instead of the patriotism he might have, had not his mother divided and his father made repulsive such an idea’, Sandro has ‘a high romantic regard for sailing boats’.

Finally, the sixth crew member, and the only other woman on the boat besides the captain’s wife, is a very young English girl, Gabriel Shepherd (the name surely a sardonic nod toward both landed and unlanded ways of being far from the madding crowd). Gabriel has been signed on as cook, and she can scarcely separate the actual voyage from the recording of it, which she does daily and religiously by speaking into a tape recorder and sending the tapes home to her mother in England. She is, perhaps, the representative of that dubious stability, that landedness, the Gabriel Oak-ness, against which the others measure themselves. ‘Gabriel was an English girl, come to try out the world, Sandro supposed, before going home to an English man.’ She is, it would seem, one of those who travel in order to confirm the superiority of their changelessness and of their place of origin. It is Gabriel (or rather, the effect of her presence on Logan) who comes close to wrecking the delicate ecology of life on the microcosm of the boat.

McWilliam’s narrative mode in Debatable Land can only be called oceanic. There is no linearity to it. Reading the novel is akin to listening to short wave on a boat radio. Voices (particularly the thoughts of Alec and Elspeth, but of others as well) alternate unpredictably, static intervenes, there is a constant surf of background noise as though the airwaves were awash. And yet, as with all voyages, which must have a starting point and a final harbour, there is a strong sense of direction. Each character reruns the past, edits it, makes peace with it, reaches the present from a new perspective. Alec and Elspeth are drawn to each other by the unhappiness of their respective unions and their shared Scottishness, and each attains modest enlightenment. All six crew members are heading for the great storm and the final harbour. It is the storm – one that for 80 hours ‘squeezed at the sea and cracked the sky’ and kept up a ‘panicky bullying of the boat’ – which confronts each crew member with his or her truest self.

Sea voyages, of course, are apt and ancient metaphors for life and for the eternal questing of artists, and the most venerable of these is invoked on the second page:

An uncertain passage in the Odyssey has Tiresias speaking of a land without salt. Odysseus mentions this place to Penelope even before they first sleep together after their long parting. Is Odysseus preparing the ground for another great journey, this time to the saltless land? ... Or is [Homer] describing, perhaps even unwittingly, that saltless state of being that makes people take to the sea or to another sure source of fear when they have no need to, when they have come to feel the savour gone from their daily life and a deathly blandness consume their works and days? ... It was in such a saltless state that Alexander Dundas was collected from his hotel on the seafront at Papeete by Elspeth Urquhart and brought to Ardent Spirit.

Alec had found the job (‘Strong man with some experience of sail required for last leg of Pacific voyage. Keep and fair wage’) advertised in the back of a sailing magazine he’d picked up while waiting at the hospital for Lorna, the nurse he lived with, to finish her shift. The advertisement seemed to Alec to speak of lives ‘unimaginably emancipated, lived between sea and sky’.

If there is a principal protagonist other than the sea it is Alec, the painter whose personal relationships are an ugly failure (something that many artists manage to live with), but who is stirred to subject himself to his own fear of the voyage through fear of an even more disturbing kind. ‘As a painter he lived by light, and he feared that the light in his head was going.’ On land, he had become ascetic and solitary, driving people from himself. At sea, searching for a rekindling of the light, he has an epiphany while swimming underwater. ‘The complete severance from others, which he had not thought to fear, shocked him. He was surrounded by a greatness to which he was nothing ... Below the upper surface he realised how his inland taste for solitariness was reliant upon the presence of absent others.’

Life under sail induces a state which Alec recognises as resembling prayer. He ponders the wellsprings of his art. ‘The annihilation of his own abandoned imagination he knew would come; that of some men somewhere on the earth he had to believe would somehow continue to burn. This was his faith and he had never confided it to another.’ In the pure work of the imagination he sees the traces of holiness. He himself does ‘not want quite to be holy, too uncorporeal for a painter, a Scot at that’. But he does want to be good. ‘Not good at what I do, which I judge almost impossible beyond a certain disheartening competence, but the still harder thing, good.’

There is a clear sharp moment when this seems not beyond possibility to Alec. On the island of Huahine, he hitches a ride into town. As his truck passes a group of old men sitting under a tree, the driver comments: ‘They are doing nothing. It’s the best thing, the thing we are best at, but everyone does it differently. More art should be about doing nothing.’ And Alec ‘felt a shell crack from him, a shell of opinion and self-consciousness, and recognised a strong desire to be back at work, painting, and conveying in paint what he had not tried before to paint, a goodness in life.’

One is tempted to see the same sharp turning point as pertaining to McWilliam’s art, for if her first two novels could be said to be explorations of the mysterious and elusive nature of evil, this one is certainly about the even more mysterious and elusive nature of goodness. In all three books, she brings to bear the same clearsightedness and unsparing intelligence, the same bravura wittiness, and also, alas, the same occasional indulgence in a besetting sin shared with Alec, and with certain other famous Scots before them: the John Knox syndrome. There is always a most unnecessary sermon, forced into the mouth of one of the characters, and belonging there about as well as salt cod in a goldfish bowl. (In this novel, it is Elspeth’s impassioned little homily on Scottish separatists, and the ways in which English stupidity has created them: ways that have already been so much more deftly conveyed in oblique and witty exchanges in various ports.) But then, it is a mild relief to find a flaw or two in so gifted a writer. An occasional image is off-key, an occasional metaphor is too strained a conceit to be anything but embarrassing (the brain as ‘the aching cauliflower we carry in our skulls’; Nick’s theoretical tendency as something he must keep in his head ‘against oxidisation from exposure to windier minds’). But it is difficult to convey the rich texture of this novel, its illuminating wit and intelligence, its satisfying journey’s end. McWilliam’s first two novels were brilliantly savage. This one is elegiac in tone, with a painful wisdom reminiscent of Eliot’s Four Quartets.