The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965
Moonshine. At this point readers may wish to check Davin's picture of the little Southland pocket of Irishism against two other books which offer testimony about it. Both are by Helen Wilson, a novel, Moonshine, 1944, and her autobiography, My First Eighty Years, 1950. These are indispensable supplements to Davin's novels and short stories.
Moonshine is set in the 1880-1900 period, and tells the story of Tangi Flat, a South Island settlement of "bog Irishmen" who were isolated by geography and deliberate choice from the hated English about them. The material on which Helen Wilson drew is given in its factual form in her autobiography, chapter five, where she describes her experiences as a young teacher in the late 1880s at Waitohi Flat. In the novel she makes the teller of the tale into a young man, Robin Marchant, a transfer of viewpoint which is not very effective. Much that Marchant thinks, sees, feels, is not masculine, so that as a character he is a failure. As the structural centre of the book, however, he is adequate, and in any case the virtue of Moonshine lies neither in its sensational plot nor in its hero, but in its astonishingly real Irish settlers. Nothing in the 1940s can touch the Irish character portraits in this book. In 1944, before Davin's stories, the type was quite original in our fiction. The women are the best drawn. Helen Wilson manages to make us see through Irish, not Saxon, eyes, as the hero, like the reader, becomes more and more a part of the community. Most notable of all is the conversation. The plot, which involves an Irish colleen, an Irish villain, illicit whisky, and a tragic ending, has enough body to give the book tension and shape. It creaks at the joints, however, which shows that Helen Wilson has not fully transmuted what she so shrewdly observed into a satisfying artistic whole. She is too near to her own experience, and attempts to order it in the technique of yesterday. Moonshine has zest, humour, sympathy, insight, and deserved to make more stir than it did.
Davin's next novel, The Sullen Bell, 1956, acknowledges his expatriate status by being set among New Zealand exiles in post-war London. The title has the usual literary echoes. Shakespeare's "No page 68 longer mourn for me when I am dead/Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell ..." gives us the clue that this book is about those soldiers who did not die, and must forget their friends who did. The characters are all desultory wanderers, forming and reforming casual groups which mirror their inward uncertainty. All have lost someone, and try to find a reason for beginning again. Hugh Egan, probably the central figure, is of Irish-New Zealand descent—educated at Otago University, and (can you guess it?) an Oxford man, a returned soldier, a compiler of an official war history. Round him revolve spasmodically other Kiwis, equally obsessed with memories of war and home. The plot contrives their happy ending, whether in violent death or resigned affection. The sense of a narrow circling expatriate society is brilliantly conveyed, "the goldfish bowl of people" as David Hall put it,15 and the lingo of these islands is heard, familiarly uncouth, among the clipped English tones. But there is much clumsiness; these Kiwis talk almost as much about the English-New Zealand tensions as did Robin Hyde's "aggressively insular" colonials. New Zealand reviewers of The Sullen Bell almost all expressed disquiet. Yet the book holds the attention, for Davin is always readable.