Book Review: The Open World

By Michael Larsen

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The Open World by Stephanie Johnson
Vintage $37.99

Book cover of The Open World by Stephanie Johnson. Photo / Supplied
Book cover of The Open World by Stephanie Johnson. Photo / Supplied

The Open World is an attractive proposition, in that it occupies the "historical local fiction told from a Pakeha point of view" section of the market, which isn't exactly "mass-market". Yet Stephanie Johnson tells a tale that should have broad appeal. She has a personal investment in this book, too, the story being a retelling, fictionalised, of the intriguing life of her forebear, one Elizabeth Horelock Smith.

Using some of Smith's own letters as a resource and the fortunately more numerous ones of her son Henry, Johnson has built on what is known and invented the rest to create a tale of life in New Zealand, and England, in the mid to late 19th century.

Smith's own back story is unusual for the time - well educated, she unwittingly married a bigamist and had two sons with him before he returned to his original wife, leaving Smith pretty much penniless and, worse, without social standing.

Her attempts to conceal her past - including another ill-fated marriage - consume much of her energy and run like a vicious current beneath the tale.

Those proceedings have intrigue enough - Smith left England in 1841, sailing on the Tomatin with Bishop Selwyn, William Cotton, Selwyn's chaplain and librarian, and New Zealand's first Chief Justice, William Martin. It is the latter's wife that Smith is charged with caring for, and with whom she sets up a dispensary and hospital. She sails here to keep in touch with her two sons: Henry became judge of the Native Land Court and John Elisha, "Ish", a solicitor; but ultimately she returns to England, from where she views her own history.

Johnson describes the era with great clarity. The characters are wonderfully drawn, little idiosyncrasies bringing them to life and making them seem authentic. The downside is that none of them are terribly likeable. Selwyn is a pompous, conceited bully; his wife insufferably dull. Judge Martin, possibly homosexual, certainly incapable of consummating his marriage, is a snob; Mary-Ann, his wife, sickly (yet the only one with real heart).

The saving grace is Cotton, who accompanies Smith on her final odyssey to the spa town of Buxton to reconnect with the Martins.

He's perhaps the most appealing, mainly because, as Sarah Selwyn noted archly, "he lacks ballast" - his leftfield outpourings add a spry touch when the narrative threatens to stumble.

There are occasional surprises to keep you engaged but I found it ultimately disheartening. Smith just isn't very engaging and, as she haunts every page, her difficult nature and bitter recollections cast the whole in an unforgiving light.

Perhaps Johnson visited her story out of duty, rather than delight and thus, at times, has let obligation overrule imagination. But overall, The Open World is a worthy addition that adds another piece to our colonial puzzle.

Michael Larsen is an Auckland writer.

* Stephanie Johnson will appear at the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival, Aotea Centre, May 9-13.

- NZ Herald

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