by Kathryn van Beek
(Mary Egan Publishing, $20)
Pet, the new collection of self-published short stories from Pākehā author Kathryn van Beek, manages to be both charming and brutal. I laughed out loud at the first story, about an emotional support ferret who causes chaos when she gets loose on an aeroplane. But then the ferret dies, crushed by her anxious owner who is undergoing IVF. The darkness and the humour twist around one another. Van Beek does not allow the reader to have one without the other.
Each story is themed around a pet – with accompanying illustration – and I enjoyed guessing how the drawing of the animal at the start would turn up in the narrative. But as I read I began to understand that the real theme underlying these stories was not pets but dead babies.
Pet is dedicated to Wilhelmina Elizabeth Armstrong, "who was never born", and this sense of grieving those who might have been haunts the pukapuka. Van Beek seems determined to explore all the ways in which reproduction and parenting can go painfully wrong: infertility, miscarriage, post-partum psychosis, eerily lifelike dolls, ghost babies, starving babies, murdered babies – even a rogue AI entering the soul of an unborn baby. The babies who survive to be children are still up against it: in "The Nor'wester" three children are living in fear of their abusive father, until one day they lure him gradually deeper out to sea and watch him drown.
Despite this bleakness – or rather, hand in hand with it – Pet is also very funny, employing an unmistakeably Kiwi humour. I was particularly entertained by "Best-Dressed Possum", set at a school fair that is running a competition in which the corpses of possums are dressed up as celebrities. Local single mother Devon has hers on ice: "Last year had been unseasonably hot." The entries are hilariously grotesque: "Possum Diana was accessorised with a pearl choker, Jacinda Furrdern sported a set of fake teeth and MAGA had a red tie and a giant hairpiece of teased wool." Devon has put together a Hugh Hefner dead possum with "two rabbit carcasses, each dressed in lace … Hugh and his Bunnies". But not everyone is following the rules: "An elderly man [was] holding a stiff cat dressed like a rugby player. 'Sorry mate,' said Pete. 'Beautiful job, but I can't accept a cat … You can't be seen to be shooting people's pets.' The elderly man tucked the cat under his Swanndri and shuffled off, swearing under his breath." The climax of the story comes when an interfering middle-class urbanite cops a banoffee pie in the face. It's a slapstick moment but there's still a thread of wrongness and loss, as Devon and her kids "of uncertain pedigree" are subtly made to feel unwelcome by their neighbours.
Pet – which is available in print and as a podcast from Otago Access Radio – casts an unflinching but also tender light on the kinds of private griefs that often go unacknowledged. I highly recommend it. - Review by Elizabeth Heritage
by Tiffany McDaniel
With its mix of violence and discordant sweetness, Tiffany McDaniel's Betty somehow resembles an archetypal Nick Cave Murder Ballads song coupled with a gothic coming-of-age story. It throws everything at the page. Lyric and suddenly brutal by turns, McDaniel's novel is a recreation of the lives of three generations of a mixed-race American family, and it is potent reading.
Betty was actually McDaniel's first-written book, but its raw subject matter meant publishers were wary of the manuscript, rejecting it until her second novel, The Summer That Melted Everything, reached 2016 best-seller lists. Now Betty can finally be seen for what it is, a rich and partially-autobiographical book written in heightened prose.
McDaniel's grandfather was a Cherokee Indian and a sometime moonshiner, herbalist, and itinerant coal miner. Married to a white woman, he was also a repeated victim of prejudice. McDaniel's mother, Betty, their daughter, was one of 12 children, raised in the foothills of the Ohio Appalachians. The book is based upon her life and perceptions.
Telling the story of Betty's childhood and adolescence during the 1960s, the novel is a classic bildungsroman, a literary genre focusing on the psychological and moral growth of the lead character. Betty is a natural story-teller and is always writing, but she must also deal with the complexities of her own family, as well as the casual racial viciousness around her. She is both curious and resilient.
Her father, Landon Carpenter, is a dreamer and a man who carries the history of the Cherokee people not only in his blood but in his beliefs and visions. He frequently speaks obliquely, his words coming in the form of stories, tribal legends, and personal myths. Betty's mother, Alka Lark, is more pragmatic about the world's cruelties.
Eventually the itinerant family come to live in the small Ohio town of Blessed, in a house with its own reputed "curse". Bustling with growing children, each with their own personal world, Betty is a full novel. McDaniel also sketches the town's inhabitants with verve – albeit with a tendency towards caricature, even in names: Americus Diamondback, Wilma Gayheart and Mrs Windcreep.
Despite the music of Elvis Presley on the radio, the racoon tails tied to the aerials of Rambler station wagons and Blessed's slamming screen doors in summer, the world's most ancient and widespread cultural taboo lies at the heart of the story. Slowly revealed, its effects have already poisoned the lives of three generations of a family.
Stylistically, Betty could best be described as "Appalachian magical realism". It might be rooted in the hard facts of American life but McDaniel's words and story swerve into reverie and near-Biblical parable. The novel can be overwrought, yet it creates a world not easily forgotten. - Reviewed by David Herkt