The Strength of Eggshells by Kirsty Powell
What a remarkable first novel. This is such good storytelling and great writing. There are three stories weaving through the book, three generations of women from the same family, all looking for one-another.
In the present day, Kate has many insecurities about herself. At six feet tall she is constantly self-conscious, but her escape is to go hard on her motorbike. She knows almost nothing about her mother Jane. We hear Jane’s story from Dr Bean, the Medical Officer at a mental hospital. Jane cannot tell this in her own words, as she has been badly scarred in a fire and the doctor is trying to find her somewhere inside of herself. He tries to reach her with poetry, and rather than speaking directly, she writes poetry for him which hints at her past and her life. Her eloquent words suggest much more than she is willing to allow “Beanstalk” to understand.
Going further back into the past, we hear the story of Meredith, who after the First World War went to settle in a remote valley off the Whanganui river. The land was given to war veterans to clear and farm, but for several years they had gradually deserted the farms until only a handful were left, battling the regenerating bush and the wild pigs. Here Meredith entered into a loveless marriage with James Stanley. As he increasingly turns to whiskey and lives in the wharre behind the farm house, she runs the farm single-handed, learning all the skills she needs to muster sheep, kill and butcher pigs and still cook an evening meal. You can really feel the harshness of those pioneering times in her story. I love her strength and determination.
As Kate forces herself to look deeper into the past, she begins to learn a little more about her mother and grandmother, until she eventually discovers the aged Dr Bean who had kept her mother’s book of poetry.
Each chapter allows us different narrators, so when we reach the aged Dr Bean, this is what we learn about him:
“Retirement be damned. All the damaged beach folk around these parts seemed to find a reason to come and visit Beanstalk. An old man with time on his hands, he would listen to their woes in a confidential manner. They would depart his bach with a lighter step, leaving him nothing but the burden of their sad words and his advancing years.”
The story of Meredith is the most poignant for me. Her journey along the Whanganui river by paddle boat to a remote valley where she is met by a friend, is the start of a tragic sequence of events. She is introduced to a farmer, James Stanley, who is looking for a wife. The clumsy, unfeeling, proposal of marriage:
“James looks over at Meredith and then straight ahead. ‘Mrs Anderson tells me you are looking for a husband. You could do worse than me.’
Meredith glances at his profile. It tells her nothing of his thoughts. She nods.
‘So it’s settled then. Reg said he’d help me build another room onto my hut down at Jack Ward’s old place. It’ll take us a few weeks to get it all shipshape, so shall we say Saturday five weeks from now? There is a registry office out at Raetihi.’
Meredith nods again. They walk on in silence, the horse with no name filling the space between them. At the first bluff, Meredith turns back and walks home alone. Tears fall down her face.”
Meredith’s life is so hard and so tragic. There is no intimacy between her and James and no children. The arrival of Peter to shear the sheep one year, changes all that and life will never be the same again.
A wonderful story, at times confronting, but very real and gritty.
Reviewer: Marcus Hobson
Published by Cloud Ink