It’s forty years Sue McCauley’s first novel Other Halves won both the Goodman Fielder Wattie and New Zealand Book Awards. Suddenly launched into focus as one of the nation’s most significant writers, with a book which sold around 20,000 copies and was later made into a film, McCauley’s career has subsequently been closely observed.
McCauley has published another four novels, two short story collections and a biography. Now, after decades since her last one, she has finally launched another novel. And it is definitely worth the wait.
Landed is a sprawling novel about relationships, family and change. The central character is – like McCauley herself, who is now in her early 80s – an older woman; an empty nester. As an aside, McCauley’s earlier novel, Other Halves, was loosely based on her early relationship with her husband of 50 years. It is therefore likely that she also writes with some authority about the character Briar who is suddenly cast adrift by the rapid pace of change in society. At least that is the way it seems to the reader for whom the multiple themes might also ring true.
Fellow writer Patricia Grace observes “Such good explorative writing: wit, clarity, images sharp and fresh. As a reader I am in safe hands with Sue McCauley”. I bow to Patricia Grace’s superior understanding of what comprises good writing, and agree completely about the clarity of the images. It is, to me, the mark of a good writer when scenes evoked during the book, entirely by the imagination and skill of the author, remain fresh and vivid in the days and weeks after the book is finished.
I also applaud McCauley’s insight and clarity, and the sly assault on old values that new ways can often bring. For example, the suicide of Briar’s husband, in over his head financially; the glib way her son steps up with advice to essentially ‘get with it Mum and invest in shares’; the Global Financial Crisis that follows; and the way her son then sidesteps, unscathed by it all, into peddling pokie machines to pubs. Then there’s the young man who helps her to understand computers; the sister in law who puts aluminium windows in a heritage building; and the relationships with her own children which defy expectations of family harmony. And of course there’s the land hinted at in the title Landed.
As Briar is upended by sudden deaths, cellphones, racial prejudice aimed at her childhood friends; and being an older woman in a man’s world; she must also recreate a new life for herself – a way to live what remains of her own life in harmony. The more I reflect on this novel, the greater grows my respect for the author whose own values are clearly crafted in to characters who step off the page in all of their dimensions - with flaws, frailties and redemptive features in glorious colour.
This is a thought-provoking masterpiece of a novel (soon to be a film, perhaps?).
Reviewer: Peta Stavelli