The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965
Tough to Take
Tough to Take. Much the most sophisticated of the three and the toughest is Marilyn Duckworth's A Barbarous Tongue. It has less optimism, and its dialogue and characters carry such conviction that the story hurts as it would do in real life. It tells of nineteen-year-old Frieda. She flats in Wellington with "poor Thelma", sleeps with John who is only temporarily diverted from his obsession with his cancerous dying sister Barbara, goes to Dunedin when her pregnancy is realised, and is sheltered, also temporarily, by older, one-armed Austin in his bachelor flat. There Barbara joins her, and John, in crowded tragicomic chaos. In a brilliant sequence, Frieda's baby arrives. After Barbara's death, John marries Frieda, but is never hers emotionally, and soon abandons her. Austin, too, is only "half a man", as his missing arm suggests, but he believes in selfhelp, and turns Frieda out, baby and all. We end as she begins at last to assume responsibility for her own life. The title is from Yeats:
But I am old and you are young,
And I speak a barbarous tongue.
This suggests that the narrator is old, but since Frieda, the "I" of the story, is young, the symbolism is vague. Obviously Barbara's name too, is intended to have symbolic resonance. These suggestions of depth are however not over-emphasised, merely lying in wait for the page 126 the reader under the turbulent surface of reality which Marilyn Duckworth offers.
Comparable in the attitudes studied, though not in its level of competence, is Jean Watson's Stand in the Rain, 1965, a feminine counterpart to Barry Crump's yarns.