JOHNSON - whatever happened to the hero of Man Alone?
by Dean Parker
Steele Roberts ($35)
Reviewed by David Hill

I think psychologist Jung called it synchronicity: two uncommon, tightly linked but causally unrelated events happening remarkably close to each other.

So a few months back, we had Whanganui bushman Noel Shepherd's Mulgan, his fictional rendering of Man Alone's author John Mulgan fighting behind German lines in Greece, then ending his tormented life in Egypt. Now one of New Zealand's leading playwrights offers a projection of the novel's protagonist after Mulgan's final pages.

The Johnson who marched in 1930s Depression protests, punched a policeman in Queen St, then fled the country after his employer's violent death, continues his packed, picaresque progress. He fights bloodily in Spain, brawls with fascists in London as World War II starts, serves in Greece much as his original creator did, meets a cop who hunted him in NZ (it's a narrative with many, many chance encounters), is a guerrilla on Crete, encounters an exhausted and ranting Kiwi officer called ... Mulgan.

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Drawn back to New Zealand at the war's end, Johnson slips into his old rhythms of hard work and hard living, sees familiar places and faces (more chance meetings), joins the Communist Party, marches again - this time in the 1951 waterfront lockout. It's an emphatically political narrative, which won't surprise any of Dean Parker's fans, and just occasionally the thumping of tubs can be heard.

The plot is one hectic event after another, with a regular pulse of those unlikely contacts. The strongest such pulse involves gutsy green-eyed leftie Hillary, once from Wellington, later from London, Spain, Greece - yes, all those places where Johnson happens to be passing by. If this were a film, she'd appear with her own theme music.

Suspend your disbelief in such statistically improbable meet-and-greets and you'll relish the ways her external travels and internal travails change Johnson, till he's no longer a Man Alone (okay, a spoiler, but you'd have soon guessed the fond, somewhat fantasy ending by yourself).

It's always intriguing when a writer who is expert in one form turns their keyboard to another. Parker's dialogue powers along, as you'd expect, and his clipped, gaunt style energises the novel. At the risk of cliche crime, I'll note that numerous scenes would look great on stage.

Wild with coincidence, vivid with incident, unusual and rewarding. And a measure of how Mulgan's craggy 1939 story still resonates in our national consciousness.

BIRD COUNTRY
by Claire Aman
(Text Publishing, $37)
Review by Elizabeth Heritage

I've been reviewing a lot of anthologies and collections recently and have developed a sort of pre-emptive bracing against the inevitable dud story in among the good ones. But by the time I finished Bird Country, the fall wasn't coming - all these short stories are superb.

Bird Country

has amassed a seriously impressive list of prizes, especially when you consider it is Claire Aman's first book. The stories are separate, but linked by the motif of birds, and the setting of Grafton, a small rural town in New South Wales.

In the first story, Sailor's Tale, the bird is a dead pigeon on the deck of a sailboat. A man, a woman and their son are heading for the sea to scatter the man's father's ashes. None of the characters are named and are instead referred to by their roles: the captain, the mate, the old man. (Aman does this again in Sustenance: the poet, the painter, the candlestick maker).

Indeed, throughout Bird Country the protagonists are rarely named. It's an odd trick that simultaneously distances the reader by slightly dehumanising the characters but brings us in closer by assuming we're already too intimate to need to be told their names.

Jap Floral is the story that has stayed with me the most. A glassworker - a very creepy man - is standing on a balustrade above where his ex-wife is dining, holding a large piece of blue glass and considering dropping it on her: "Glass doesn't forgive". "I am not an intolerant man", he says with total inaccuracy. "I love perfect resolution. I consider myself finely tuned."

The unreliable narrator is one of my favourite literary conceits and in this story Aman invites us to view the events of the story through the distorted and coloured glass of the man's perceptions. "When the light changes, everything is different. Why should you expect to see anything else but the truth?"

In Sustenance, Aman writes: "The poet sees the hugeness of things. She will distil and distil until she has a single shining drop." This is also true of Bird Country itself, which packs huge themes - poverty, friendship, disability, abuse, death, family, addiction - into 16 excellent short stories.

THE SONGS
by Charles Elton
(Bloomsbury, $30)
Reviewed by David Hill

In the year when Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature, this novel orbits Iz Herzl, globally acclaimed protest singer and folk icon, public hero and private failure.

The 80-year-old is venerated for his blend of art and activism, but to the three children he's fathered from his shopping list of women, he's more notable for his physical and emotional absence - a figure who leaves them in order to fly to Chile for six weeks while he sings about ... children.

As Iz starts to dwindle in a leafy London suburb, the very disparate offspring tell his and their stories. There's 16-year-old maths prodigy Rose, caregiver for her terminally ill younger brother Huddie. There's the utterly estranged, 40 years older Joseph, emotionally and artistically half-fulfilled.

Depressed just by the synopsis? There are some laughs in Elton's second fiction but they're mostly rueful, savage and/or contemptuous. Death by double defenestration is the nearest we get to a chuckle. A typical relationship ends with A spitting in B's face or C realising D's internet porn addiction. Loneliness rules. Curiously, though the content is dark, the tone is often light, almost offhand. A discreetly noir comedy glints intermittently.

It's a narrative with individually vivid scenes: a bullying teacher is defied; a musical anthem is offensively (and effectively) mocked; A Taste of Honey is rendered - tastelessly. Feral assault, courtroom injustice, a squirmingly credible non-sex scene and a not wholly credible identity switch all nudge events towards a qualified resolution, where facts prove fragile. Some of the story's parts work better than the whole.

Iz remains an enigma: a global icon and private vacuum who sees family relationships as frivolous. It's teenage Rose whose voice most energises the novel: brave, grieving, brutally loyal.

A lot of famous musical names and titles get mentioned. They must be famous - even I've heard of them. We get a fair number of lyrics, which look as flat as lyrics often do on the page. Elton does a good job of evoking the egos, unreliable narrators and technical hassles of the songwriter's existence. How do you convincingly rhyme "hierarchy" with "teriyaki"?

Some useful intimations of whom an icon "belongs" to and a fine cast of mainly unattractive groupies, roadies and toadies. A cool, unsettling but rather unresolved look at the frayed edges of fame.

NOW LET'S DANCE
by Karine Lambert
(Hachette, $35)
Reviewed by Ruth Spencer

A slim novel translated from the French by the brilliant Anthea Bell, Now Let's Dance is a glib fantasy of later love. Marguerite is 78, tentatively emerging from a marriage that oppressed her into obedient Stepford wifedom. Her late husband is largely unmourned but the gap left by his dominance of Marguerite's life seems insurmountable.

By contrast, the relationship between French-Algerian refugees Nora and Marcel is a charming tale of childhood romance, separated young lovers and blissful reunions. The amount of detail given to their relationship is slightly cruel because in order for the book to get on with its narrative of second chances and elderly love, Nora must be sacrificed. Far from unmourned, Nora's death is an almost fatal blow to 73-year-old Marcel.

Marcel and Marguerite, drowning in sudden loneliness, both find themselves bundled off to a mountain retreat of spa baths and mud wraps. They meet, escape from their cheerless steamy prison for a picnic and fall accidentally in love.

If the book is slim, it's partly because it skims over emotional arcs that would make it more engaging. The chief obstacle to Marcel and Marguerite's love is her stuffy son Frederic, who controls Marguerite's money and doubts her mental fitness to manage life at all, let alone a new life with a sprightly, slightly-younger man.

He tricks his drugged mother into a rest home but it's all smoothed over without so much as a screaming match. The book moves briskly through any conflict, leaving a slight sense of anticlimax as scenarios that seem to set up impending dramas come to nothing.

What it lacks in narrative tension, Now Let's Dance makes up for in languid charm. France reliably provides a romantic backdrop to the gentle love story of Marguerite and Marcel. There are no real downsides to their union; no little blue pills, no physical frailty, plenty of money and travel. And yet in the Gallic tradition it is deliberately bittersweet, joy quietly trailed by the shadow of its inevitable end.