Caroline Hunter, OTAGO DAILY TIMES

 

ITHACA
 - Lynley Dear
, pub. LRH, $30, pbk

 

With the exception of some publicity close to home, Southland author and poet Lynley Dear's first novel, Ithaca, seems to be flying under the radar since its release late last year, so I am glad to be able to sing its praises.

 

Although it is billed on the back cover as a touching and memorable love story in the tradition of Colleen McCullough's The Thorn Birds, I can assure you that off-putting comparison can be ignored.

Although it includes a love affair involving a priest, which is thankfully handled with restraint, the novel's scope goes far beyond that, conveying a family story across several generations in carefully crafted prose.

 

Given the beauty of some of the phrasing, it is evident the author is a poet.

Dear covers a lot of ground, from 1920s Scotland to modern-day New Zealand, with episodes also set in Israel, England and Germany. Framing the narrative is a connection to events touched on at the beginning of the novel surrounding the death in Jerusalem in 1236 of a Crusader, Philip d'Aubigny, who was the Governor of the Channel Islands and among those present at the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215.  When he succumbed to illness while taking part in the Fifth Crusade, he was buried in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, a rare honour.

 

The main character, Cecily McCallum (nee Daubeny), is Philip's descendant.  The connection to him is discovered when the coat of arms on his tomb is recognised as being the same as that depicted on a ring Cecily inherited.  Not only does this function as an intriguing plot device, it also mirrors an identical discovery in Dear's own family.  Philip d'Aubigny is actually her ancestor and the heirloom ring belonged to her great-uncle, George Daubeny. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction in this case.

While history provides the backbone for Ithaca, the novel is fleshed out with the lives of four generations of women from a family that emigrated to New Zealand from Scotland in 1926 to settle in Invercargill.  Their struggles and misunderstandings could easily have been reduced to saga material, but Dear strikes a balance between dramatic tension and credible emotion and the result is poignant and accomplished.  She especially nails the embarrassment and pretensions of Cecily's social-climbing daughter when her mother has a breakdown.  Cecily's treatment at the hands of her family, who abandon her to the Seacliff mental hospital, is heartbreaking, an impression achieved without resort to melodramatic embellishment.

 

Ithaca, named in reference to Homer's Odyssey, is a testament to courageous women and the suffering of those who emigrated to this country in times gone by.  It is infused with historical references, touching on many events, people and places, especially in 20th-century New Zealand.

 

I found this background absorbing, informative and, when referring to the South, easy to relate to.

Ithaca is an impressive debut and I hope it gets the attention it deserves.

Caroline Hunter is a Dunedin writer and editor.

Gillian A. Aitken, SOUTHLAND TIMES

 

POPPY BOYS - Lynley Dear, pub. Southland Museum, $25, pbk

 

Steven Spielberg's epic World War II movie Saving Private Ryan was one of those gut-wrenching stories that stayed with you long after you walked out of the theatre. The tale of the search for the fourth and only surviving Ryan brother, so he can be sent home to safety, is all the more harrowing because it was inspired by the real-life Niland brothers.

 

However, there's another equally sad story of wartime loss that isn't so well-known, even though it happened much closer to home. The Christophers brothers all grew up in Southland, all attended Southland Boys' High School and, sadly, all died in the Great War. Like Steven Spielberg, Invercargill author Lynley Dear has made the story a mix of fiction and non-fiction, using the true story as inspiration. The result is what she has subtitled an interpretation rather than a novel. This was an incredibly clever move because it gives the reader the opportunity to get inside the heads of the main characters, four young men the Christophers brothers, and has allowed Dear to make their stories flow in a way that wouldn't have been possible if this had been written as a non-fiction historical account of the events. And it's the getting inside their heads and getting to know them that makes this book such a good read. They become real, three-dimensional people and it becomes difficult to not feel the pain, the fear and the bravery of the brothers and of those left behind.

 

These young men were part of a generation decimated by war and it is hard for someone of my generation to imagine what it was like dealing with that trauma. Everyone talked about the intensity of the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan, which covered the brutal bloodshed of the Omaha Beach landing at Normandy on June 6, 1944. However, for me it was the gritty realness of the story in its quieter times that struck a chord: the fear, bravery and honesty. And there was also empathy for a mother facing the possibility of having to bury all four of her sons.

 

Poppy Boys has that very same impact, making you care about the brothers so that even though you know the outcome of each of their stories, you are still a little shocked when death inevitably happens to each of them. There's also a twist at the end that makes a valid statement about the squandering of young lives.

Gillian A. Aitken, Southland Times

Michael Fallow, SOUTHLAND TIMES

 

THE HOLLYWOOD SCHOOL OF DRESSMAKING - Lynley Dear, pub. Open Book, $32.50, pbk

 

Lynley Dear's mother, Agnes, knew the real Hollywood School of Dressmaking.  She had made her wedding dress there in 1941.

 

In 2005 Lynley wrote The Invercargill Book, an idiosyncratic salute to her hometown.  The late George Griffiths, owner and founder of Otago Heritage Books, requested a copy and she sent him one without charge.  Had Griffiths been less gentlemanly, Dear's latest novel wouldn't have come about.  But he sent her a reciprocal gift, New Zealand's First Talkies, by Simon Price, which also told of pioneering film makers touring New Zealand towns in a fearlessly named franchise, Hollywood on Tour. These guys made Community Comedies featuring touring 'Stars'  and heaps of excited locals all to a templated story line.  They would film it, process it and screen it to their target audience all in just ten days. Dear's The Hollywood School of Dressmaking is set during those ten days and transports the dressmaking school back a few years to co-incide with the filming.  And yes, it turns what was really a silent film into a very early Talkie .

 

The book is a romp, not without its melodramatic moments and some of the set pieces are almost slapstick so its dynamics echo those of the film.  Great fun to write, particularly the ripely ill-behaved character D'Arcy Dark.

 

For all its lightness and uplift there's an underbelly of social realism here too, a great deal of historical knowledge and a palpable, educated love of Art Deco.  At the dressmaking school atop the blue and yellow stairs, a change of instructor transforms a climate of scolding darning school functionality to one inviting altogether more stellar creations.  Caught up in the excitement of the day are local girls Edna, Rose and the myopic Pearl, about whom Dear writes with particular empathy given the fragility of her own eyesight.  Much of the book was written after she'd suffered a retinal detachment that required her to use huge, headline sized font for each blessed word.  For all the delicacy of her phrasing the book was, in a sense, writ large.  A less literal visual problem, if problem it was, came from her plotting approach.  The story is highly character driven so she is being constantly surprised.  One key surprise, she says, was that the characters said to her there would be a sequel set in Australia. 

 

In real life there were three key New Zealand film-makers in the 1920s and 1930s; the photographer, inventor and true pioneer of sound, Jack Welsh, cameraman Lee Hill and 'cinematic tourism' entrepreneur, Rudall Hayward.  Dear has found two suffice for her purposes and names them Lee Welsh and Reg Hill.  Far from portraying them as wide boys, she depicts them as akin to the Weta Workshop wondermakers of their age.  Scenes such as Welsh worrying about his young wife speed-drying the freshly processed and hugely flammable film stock with a heater were drawn from historical record.  

Michael Fallow (extracts from Southland TImes)

Michael Fallow, SOUTHLAND TIMES

 

A STITCH IN TIME - Lynley Dear, pub. Open Book, $33.50, pbk

 

CROSSING THE BRIDGE SHE CAME ACROSS

It became a massive fascination.

     The Sydney Harbour Bridge exerted an almost magnetic attraction on Southland novelist Lynley Dear's attention when she gazed out from the harbour apartment where she'd visit her son Nicholas and daughter-in-law Brie.

     Here was an achievement of huge social significance that appealed deeply to her keen sense of history.

     In the early 1930s, amid the miseries of the Depression, it was a project for hard-pressed men.

     As it happens, she'd also ducked into a 2010 Sydney Museum exhibition, titled Skint: Making do in the Great Depression, and found it really hard to  duck out again. So much in there seemed to deserve remembering that she kept peering, pausing, taking notes.

     Dear is congenitally incapable of writing a truly bleak or miserable story. She has long been an Art Deco aficionado and knew there were personal, as well as stylistic, liberations to be found among the privations of what had been an extravagantly suffering city.

     Years later, her 2015 novel The Hollywood School of Dressmaking, proved a jaunty tale of Art Deco glamour, pioneer film-making and girlish liberation to a New Zealand town not a million miles removed from her own Invercargill.

     Writing that book, she had no particular intention of later transporting any of her characters to Sydney or anywhere else. But to her own surprise she found herself writing a "Sydney here we come" conclusion to Hollywood.

     Dear's latest, A Stitch In Time, was launched in Invercargill on Sunday evening.

     It is not a sequel, though it might be fairer to say that Hollywood was a prequel, since five of its characters have crossed the ditch in search of better things.

     The new book's cover shows the under-construction bridge through a window, with a battered sewing machine in the foreground. Each image, in its way, is transformative for the lives of her characters.

     In one brief passage the dressmaker Elsie looks out of the window at the gap where the top arch of the bridge had yet to meet in the middle, and sees it as something that needs mending. Dear was pleased to discover, afterwards, that the piece of metal connecting the arch was called a pin.

     One of her characters winds up working on the bridge, others in the entertainment industry and one at the famous David Jones store - research for which meant Dear was granted access to the now largely-unused seventh floor which once held the Great Restaurant capable of  holding 2000 people.

     The novel required enormous study compared with Hollywood, which drew on her hometown knowledge: 'Not only is it not my city, it's not today's Sydney either. I hugely enjoyed researching it.'

Michael Fallow, STUFF NEWS