This is the second novel I have read by Maurice Shadbolt. My first was his first: Among the Cinders. I bought it at the rubbish tip shop in Raglan while on holiday there two or three years ago. I was on the lookout for New Zealand fiction as I had recently started teaching English again and wanted to immerse myself in New Zealand literature beyond my confused attempt at reading Keri Hulme’s The Bone People when I first arrived in the country those many years ago. Shadbolt caught my attention as I had heard he was a legendary New Zealand writer who had lived his last years in my town of Taumarunui. Not only that, but I know his son from Taumarunui and his children are friends of my son.
So impressed was I with Among the Cinders, that I happily purchased Strangers and Journeys, this time from the rubbish tip shop in Taumarunui. Now I’m not saying that Shadbolt and rubbish tip shops have anything particular in common . . . I just seem to meet his books there. Another interesting side note to this find was that I knew the previous owner who had inscribed her name inside the front cover. Small town. Strangers and Journeys won the 1973 Wattie Book of the Year award in New Zealand.
I loved Stranger and Journeys and, while I’m not qualified to make such an assessment, I think of it as New Zealand’s East of Eden. I read Steinbeck’s classic last year so it was fresh in my mind when I started reading Strangers last April. Like Eden, Strangers tells the stories of three generations – from fathers to sons to grandsons; it incorporates a landscape that is truly New Zealand.
Bill Freeman and Ned Livingston are the fathers. Bill is an ardent orator for the Communist Party and Ned is a returning war vet, set on farming his land away from the complications of the cities and wider world. The two men have little to do with each other until Bill ends up in the small rural town of Te Ika near Ned’s farm. It is their sons who meet – Ian Freeman and Tim Livingston – at school and later in Auckland. One is destined to be a journalist and novelist, the other a painter. The novel shifts from their fathers’ rural, common man setting to the more riotous political and cultural scene of Auckland.
I really enjoyed this part of the book – Shadbolt’s ability to shift from taciturn farmers to more vibrant, quirky characters in the city. It’s a tumultuous ride from there – swapping of girlfriends, police brutality against striking unionists, unplanned pregnancies, even murder. At the core of it is a group of men who are determined to see Tim Livingston rise to the top of the art world – in New Zealand and possibly globally.
Despite many varying measures of success, everyone fails really, and Shadbolt never gives the reader much hope for more. The writing is punchy, consisting of short sentences and mainly filled with the dialogue of Kiwi blokes – understated and unelaborative. It works – most times there are more things left unsaid than said, even in 588 pages.
For me, the characters of Bill Freeman and Tim Livingston cast long, complicated shadows over the entire work and will resonate with me after.
I recommend this book to anyone wanting a terrific sampling of New Zealand literature, even if it is so focussed on white, male New Zealand characters. It’s short on Maori characters and the female characters primarily fill the roles of wife, girlfriend or sister. While I can’t say how accurate it describes New Zealand from 1919-1971, I felt completely satisfied with the breadth of New Zealand politics, culture and humanity that Shadbolt covers.
Antony Millen is a Canadian living and writing in New Zealand and the author of Redeeming Brother Murrihy: The River to Hiruharama and Te Kauhanga: A Tale of Space(s).