Sunday, May 26, 2013

Past Perfect by Karen Zelas (Novel Review)

  The life journeys of two women weave the fabric of this part-historical, part-present-day New Zealand novel.

The weft is the Frenchwoman Brigitte Dujardin, who arrived in Akaroa in 1840. The warp is her descendant – contemporary Sue Spencer, who is tracking her genealogy.

Zelas judiciously employs the parallel storyline technique to good effect. She achieves complementary roles for each, and harmoniously merges the historical echoes into the 21st century.

The two women’s lifestyles are drawn as a study of contrasts, yet they are bonded by more than a bloodline. Both confront relationship difficulties, mortality and racial, specifically anti-Maori, prejudice.

Dujardin flouts the social and moral conventions of her time, and takes a bold, almost confrontational stand on several issues. Spencer discovers kinship and finds her spine in the face of family opposition. While Dujardin’s chosen path was the stonier, Spencer’s track is strewn with more insidious obstacles.

Their experiences resonate against a background of historical and contemporary Akaroa, and the plot moves to France and back to New Zealand. This exploration of how two women mature and find inner independence is sensitive and trenchant.

Threads of hypocrisy and racism provide lively trigger points. In particular, Zelas takes a healthy swipe at the double standards and posturing of a white, academic, middle-class Kiwi male. Her aim is unerring.

She has produced a novel that sits comfortably in its New Zealand skin. The storyline maintains a steady pace while ranging over some thought-provoking aspects of our heritage and current social climate. Key characters are fleshed out into realistic personalities, and there is an acute eye and ear for nuance.

With poetry and short stories already in her literary portfolio, Zelas’ foray into the novel genre ha[s] achieved depth.

– Bronwyn Dorreen, in the Waikato Times

Republished by Interactive Publications, Brisbane, 2012. Available as ebook and print-on-demand at . Within New Zealand, available as paperback at (first edition: Wily Publications, Christchurch, 2010).