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Fiction reviews


MS Power - The Crucifixion of Septimus Roach; Linda Spalding - Daughters of Captain Cook; Carol Drinkwater - An Abundance of Rain

8 August 1990

The Crucifixion of Septimus Roach
MS Power

Daughters of Captain Cook
Linda Spalding

An Abundance of Rain
Carol Drinkwater
Michael Joseph

Published in The Australian

Septimus Roach is a Catholic priest afflicted with that product of the Devil, an open mind. In his Central American postings he works with the poor, is tortured by totalitarian governments, and gets it on with local women. He is of course, at odds with the bishops most of the time. And he is so saturated with the guilt of his indiscretions that, by the time he gets his transfer to Haiti, where The Crucifixion of Septimus Roach is set, his personality disintegrates.

That's MS Power's story in a nutshell. The idea is passable, if unoriginal. It's the way Power handles it that should consign this book to perdition.

For starters, Septimus Roach is so confused and traumatised that trying to stay with his disordered thoughts, and dialogue, could drive you to distraction.

"Father?" Oscar Nicholson called.

Father, the cripple called.

Father, a voice emanating from the past called.

And from the past, too, came skipping a motley, clamorous crew, all of them calling his name, demanding his instant, undivided attention, their voices merging into an all but indistinguishable cacophany so that, as he listened...[Several lines deleted here]...each hysterical plea fondled the next, becoming a terrifying unity of horror, becoming one, elongated pule of utter desperation...

There's a paragraph like that after every third piece of dialogue. Fear, loathing, screaming, vomiting and fainting occur in previously uncombined quantities. Presumably MS Power thinks they equate with "depth" or realism.

Anyway, Susanna, a famous ballerina, arrives in Haiti. "Something" tells her that Septimus Roach, whom she stumbles across, can help her. It's never clear what with. I mean, Susanna is confused - but not nearly as confused as Power is about what she is confused about. Strangely fraught conversations occur between Susanna and Roach. Well, actually they're incomprehensible - not the least because of Roach's knack of going into trances and mumbling inanities - and his other unhappy habit of falling to the floor screaming. He does one or the other about every five pages. (His etiquette is appalling.)

It is inconceivable, therefore, that anyone would be deluded enough to regard Septimus Roach as a spiritual guide. But several characters do. Even the dying Archbishop pens him a few words along the lines of what a tremendous inspiration he has been to everyone. His worldly friends, too, (Oscar Nicholson and Gilles Lagreze) while viewing him with hard-bitten cynicism, can't help but wonder where his remarkable charisma comes from.

Susanna flies back to America - her relationships with Roach and Oscar (an old lover) quite unresolved. From here MS Power's story did something truly remarkable: it deteriorated. There is no plot. What remains could best be described as repetitious wank:

"Oh yes," Monsieur Lagreze confirmed. "Oh yes," he said again, pausing and gazing into the distance, towards the mountains. "Oh yes," he said once more.

Pausing is the chief activity of most characters. It usually precedes gazing off into the mountains, and some leaden observation about God, death or guilt. Or some polluted stream of consciousness:

Poor little Peter Rabbit. Poor Peter! Cocknapped at the third stroke...at the third stroke it will be...que sera sera...or won't be. It won't be long, Father. Who said that? Septimus looked sharply about him. No one, and just when he was beginning to feel better.

"...better come with me and sit down."

"Better not, you mean."

"I've been watching you."

"I spy with my little eye."

"I thought you were about to faint."

"Faint hope."

It was only then that Septimus realised he was truly speaking to someone.

And so on. Everyone labours the obvious about voodoo, American influence, God, Baby Doc, and other topics for quite a while, as the page-numbers roll by. Then it's time to end the book.

Septimus gets caught up in the popular unrest as Baby Doc flees Haiti, is grabbed by a mob and roughed up, and lapses into enough trances, soliloquies and screaming fits to intimidate a psychiatric conference. By the time someone finally gets round to nailing him to a cross on page 261, you are on your feet cheering.

This book is more a bore than an outrage, and certainly not worth burning. It may be worth skimming, however - if you have a lake or pond close to your home. But perhaps the best thing would be to seal it into the wall of that new living room extension, where the pink batts don't quite meet up. It may give some 22nd Century archaeologist an idea of the range of our literature, and the inordinate length of time its most tedious theme - Catholic guilt - survived.

LINDA SPALDING'S FIRST novel, set in Hawaii, is narrated by Jesse Quill, whose husband, Paul, deserts her for a fourteen year old Hawaiian girl, Maya. There are layers to this story: Maya's mother had been adopted by Paul's parents, and an old diary reveals that Paul's father had had an affair with her. Maya was the result - which means that Maya is Paul's half-sister. Got all that? Doesn't matter.

The whole plot is tied up with incest, which the Hawiian natives - like the ancient Egyptians - believe produces nobler stock. (The dwindling chins, and neurons, of the English aristocracy would seem to contradict this notion, but I digress.)

The story is slow. The characterisation is minimal, while the side-tracks (sociological, botanical, historical) take up unwarranted space. We end up knowing a fair bit about Hawaiian herbalism, for instance - but the important character of Maya remains no more than a sketch.

The passivity of the heroine-narrator is often difficult to swallow: Jesse spends her time waiting for Paul to outgrow his obsession, and begging him to return. She is so impotent, psychologically, that even her speech is choked and misdirected. It seems not entirely deliberate on the author's part.

So Daughters of Captain Cook fails on a number of counts. Happily, and surprisingly, it passes on the most vital. It stays in your mind, disturbing and provoking, long after you've read it. The minor characters may be write-offs, but Jesse Quill, wimp that she is, somehow gets under your skin. Her situation - the destruction of her family - is terribly real, movingly sad, and, for those who have seen or had it happen, uncomfortably familiar.

Linda Spalding's sometimes disorganised sentences, her digressions and irrelevancies, and Jesse's loathsome husband, mercifully disappear as the novel reaches it very well-handled climax. These negatives are forgivable anyway, in a first novelist. Everything is forgivable in a first novelist, except lack of talent. Linda Spalding, it eventually transpires, has plenty of that.

THE MISSIVE FROM Penguin's Marketing Department, about Carol Drinkwater's An Abundance of Rain, was all but innocent of punctuation, spelling and consistent tense. (This fuels suspicions about how much modern corporate publishers care or know about literature: canned soup one week, books the next.) From behind Penguin's grunts and sqwawks, however, I gathered that Drinkwater is an actress who played Helen Herriot in All Creatures Great and Small. And that this is her first adult novel. This is what it's all about:

An English wife in search of her sexuality amid the tropical treachery of Fiji. A bronzed Australian plantation manager named Rob Stone. The mysterious death of her long-lost father. A dusky lover who shows her things her husband never did. A backdrop of political intrigue.

If potential miniseries had a real as well as a metaphorical smell, this book would be sold with a gas mask.

Kate de Marly's lips parted. Her eyes widened. She felt a lump in her chest. It rose to her throat. An ocean of cliches and mixed metaphors swam shimmering before her, pleading for utterance. She threw back her pretty shoulders, brushed a wisp of hair from the pale English face the mysterious Shyam Khumar had found so attractive, and seized the ocean with both hands.

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