‘The Peastick Girl’ by Susan Hancock
Published by Black Pepper, 2012
Early in this novel someone remarks to its central protagonist that New Zealand is ‘a hard country to come back to.’ Teresa Matheson has returned to Wellington after five years living in Melbourne and bought herself a house on the heights above the city within sight of her dead mother’s old home. The opening pages are both vertiginous and claustrophobic. Teresa is left dangling from a wooden ladder hanging from her veranda; she climbs to a ridge behind her house from where she can see both city and ocean and becomes trapped in a maze of gorse as she descends. She feels disconnected from her sisters, Mollie and Cass, and is troubled by Hugo whose former friendship with her mother provokes unease and a feeling there are disturbing things in her past that she knows nothing of. As she says to Mollie: ‘I’m here but I’m not really back; maybe you can’t get back.’
So far so familiar: the problems of returning and settling, and the questions of identity and selfhood that follow from this. But The Peastick Girl has an intensity and strangeness unusual in such ‘return of the native’ narratives. Teresa’s problems are not those of social or cultural adjustment. Indeed, apart from odd moments of near-slapstick about the curious habits of young New Zealand males, the novel is pretty free of contemporary social comment or satire. Wellington is as central to this novel as Egdon Heath is to Hardy’s Return of the Native, but it is a city empty of people other than the small cast of characters who are forever meeting or glimpsing each other as they traverse its streets. Katherine Mansfield’s city has become a wild place dominated by rain, light, wind and sound. Teresa’s house is a permeable membrane open to all weathers, a mere shack whose roof leaks and windows blow in, and through which disturbing memories swirl.
Hancock is running an elaborate parallel between the landscapes of the city and the mindscapes of her protagonist. As in Hopkins’s sonnet ‘No worst, there is none’, the mind ‘has mountains; cliffs of fall / Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed’. Teresa has an intensely close relation to the natural world, preferring to be outside than in, always thinly clad, impervious to the cold and wet that persist through most the novel. This dramatises her precarious state of mind and provides both comfort and escape from whatever it is that haunts her.
The most ambitious level of the novel is the parallel it attempts between the dislocation of its protagonist and the history of New Zealand since colonisation. ‘This whole country is a lie’, Teresa remarks to Hugo; ‘We signed up a Treaty in which we described ourselves as allies of a sovereign people, and then we broke it.’ The novel is haunted by the idea of treachery. As a consequence, no one is at home: ‘This was an empty country. Nobody had really written on it yet; a few furrows, sheep tracks, the scribbling of the wind’, Teresa reflects. I was reminded of the words scrawled across Colin McCahon’s ‘Northland Panels’: ‘a landscape with too few lovers.’