Stephen Daisley will speak in Christchurch and Dunedin this weekend about his novel Coming Rain, which won the 2016 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards book of the year. But is it actually any good? Owen Marshall slips on his gown and his powdered wig, and passes judgment.
The strongest and best expressed relationships in Stephen Daisley’s award-winning Coming Rain are between men, and between men and the natural environment. Tough men in tough country where mateship, strong but tacit, is an essential part of surviving. Daisley’s intimate knowledge of such men and their lives gives an impressive authenticity to his tale, set in Western Australia in the 1950s.
Readers are given a specific, detailed, utterly convincing and pictorial view of his characters, their work and their setting. A rifle is a Lee Enfield .303, there is the Baird shower tub, the Simac pump, the Villiers motor for sharpening handpiece cutters, and “cracked yellow blocks of Sunlight soap.”
There is writing as good as this: “The work went on. Dust rising up and blowing into the shed and the heat of the sun on the corrugated-iron roof come radiating inside. If you looked outside to the north the world was divided in to two slabs of colour. Red and blue. The land and the sky. No clouds. No rain. Red land and blue sky. Sweat arrived in veins, river-lines from the two shearers’ ever-moving forearms and backs and shoulders. Strong necks and set jaws, blinking eyes and bodies never stopping. They were soaked with sweat, dripping. Long white cobwebs blowing back and forth in the dark wooden rafters of the woolshed. You don’t stop. No matter what, you don’t stop working here.”
The book’s chief character is 21-year-old Lew McLeod, a shearer and general labourer from a deprived background, befriended years before by the much older Painter Hayes. They come to shear at Drysdale Downs. The owner has a beautiful daughter, Clara; Lew falls in love with her and finally wins her hand, despite serious impediments.
Both Lew and Painter are convincing, realistic characters. Painter Hayes is gnarled, violent, racist and addicted to grog, yet also loyal, courageous and caring in his own way. Daisley presents his contradictory, complex character without sentimentality, but as Painter’s back story is gradually revealed in the novel’s progress, a reader’s response is one of sympathy rather than condemnation.
The strong, but fluctuating, relationship between Lew and Painter is the true backbone of the novel and its greatest success. or many contemporary city readers the life led by such men as these half a century ago is completely foreign, and perhaps the more interesting for that, but the personalities and relationships are timeless.
Coming Rain has an unusual and risky structure, the sections on the life of people running parallel with sections on the desperate life of a dingo bitch in the wild. The dingo is both hunter and hunted, needing all her cunning and resilience to live, kill, mate, give birth, exult in life – and finding death at the end of it all. The parallel structure works because both stories share a common theme of endurance and courage, and there is satisfying convergence at the end when Lew presents the dingo pups to Clara. The stories have come together, just as Lew and Clara have: hardship and sacrifice have been justified.
Daisley is especially memorable when dealing with landscape, weather and survival. Often when reading the book I thought of the writing of Cormac McCarthy – the same empathetic yet unsentimental rendition of life and death, the same awareness of wonder and threat, a similar stripped and original language: “The sun woman’s fire spread across the sky as the moon fled and the red light came down and over them all. A great flock of pink and grey galahs flew above the road and Lew watched as the light rose and for as far as he could see, the earth turned pale blue and mauve in the smoky pink of early morning. The sunlight coming over the horizon and into his eyes. It blinded him as he sat up in the truck. The sun rising quickly now. Painter also woke.”
Conventional rules of grammar and syntax are often sacrificed in Daisley’s language in order to emphasise essentials and concentrate attention, as is the way with the modern Hemingways. Mostly it is effective, sometimes it draws attention to itself as a device and so proves a distraction.
There is occasional awkwardness in the dialogue, especially between Lew and Clara. But overall Daisley shows that he is a superb wordsmith and one prepared to take risks, not in self-conscious display, but to achieve impact and understanding. And more than this, his work is imbued with a sense of significance. It’s not merely entertainment, but has instruction, even revelation.
This is a novel of considerable emotional power, having a sense of real life and characters of depth. Life as a test, a struggle, yet with times of joy and triumph, and realistic optimism at the end despite much hardship, violence and death. A story combining brutality and beauty, and written with manifest sincerity.
Stephen Daisley talks with Kate de Goldi at the Christchurch literary festival on Sunday August 28 at 11am, in the art gallery. He then gets his skates on and talks at the Dunedin Art Gallery at 6pm. Golly!
The Spinoff Review of Books is brought to you by Unity Books.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.