The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965
Dan Davin. Dan Davin has made for himself a little corner in Southland Irish Catholicism, all but two novels and most of his short stories being born of that material. Davin's typical hero is young, at odds with the world, essentially puritan but tempted beyond the range of home decencies, anxious to find his own way yet saturated with the outgrown beliefs of a religious childhood, unhappy, a misfit. Is it fair to say that each of Davin's novels is a further attempt to say what he said best, perhaps, in his first book of all, Cliffs of Fall? O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap May who ne'er hung there. Davin used Gerard Manley Hopkin's words in this first novel for their relevance to its particular inner struggle; but it is permissible to ask whether the "cliffs of fall" may not be also those other elements which recur so constantly in his work, the rejection of home loyalties, of religious affiliations, of one's native land. These colour all that Davin has written. In a sense, he is still writing the same novel.
Cliffs of Fall, 1945, tells of Mark Burke, chafing at the restraints laid on him by the narrow interests and pieties of a tight little Irish Catholic community. Somewhere in the ancestry of this, clearly, is James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Stephen Dedalus, too, was caught in the nets of home, religion, and national- page 66 ism. Mark is no new type in New Zealand fiction, even in 1945; "Get out, young man" . . . "the godwits fly" . . . these are old compulsions. "I want to get out of this country and over the sea," says Mark.
The setting is Southland, Otago University, the pub, student digs, Dunedin's Town Belt, the suburbs. The story is outwardly about the way in which Mark is driven to murder. Inwardly it is about the struggle between freedom, experience, and ambition on the one hand, and conformity, love, and the cramping domestic routine of New Zealand respectability on the other. The inner and the outer plots fuse in a figurative and an actual interpretation of the title. Once over the edge of his decision, Mark is driven by his obsession to throw himself off the St. Clair cliffs. The writing is uncertain, and often too high-pitched. In parts the method seems wrong, especially the mixture of the realism of the Irish home and student days with the fantasy nightmare at the end. Taken as a whole, however, the book is a remarkable achievement.