Skylark by Jenny Pattrick
Black Swan $37.99
Novelist Jenny Pattrick breathes life into a slice of New Zealand history that has received little attention, added her own heroine, given it all a good stir and come out with a romp of a novel that is as much entertainment as it is history.
Her subject is the theatre side of early New Zealand life: the children who sang and danced, the entire familes who turned themselves into acting troupes; the circuses and actors and actresses who entertained mud-caked men during their days on the dwindling goldfields of Otago and Coromandel.
They were a hardy bunch, those brave souls who dragged themselves and their props through the towns and goldfields of a sodden, heaving and quaking New Zealand. Even the goldfields near Sydney sound like muddy hell holes.
The troupes of the 1880s included Foley's Victoria Circus, the Buckingham Family Entertainers, Charles Thatcher and Annie Vitelli and the Pollard Lilliputian Company.
Then, in centre stage, alongside the factual, documented history, Pattrick introduces the fictional story of Lily Alouette, her family and her lover.
It's a gripping story with a good dollop of tragedy - none of which is allowed to get Lily down for long. People suffer, then die. Her baby drowns. Her "husband", the notorious Bully Hayes, forces himself on her. But in Lily's words, "I am an artiste. I had talent, yes ... But I also had fortitude."
Lily was seriously risque for the 1880s. She is determined to have her cake (the handsome, devoted but mildly boring Jack Lacey) and her acting career too. She doesn't care about social morality. She adores Jack and her children, but doesn't believe they'll go to hell if she isn't married to their father. Above all, she must get back to the stage.
Somehow she convinces Jack's existing mistress, Mattie, to accept a three-handed relationship in return for her, Mattie, being Jack's true and married wife. In the spirit of this rollicking novel, this chapter is called "A Farce". "The horseman, the actress and the wench at the gate." Or, "Who is the Wife?"
Pattrick obviously had fun with this book. The structure is clever and entertaining. It is written in the style of an 18th century melodrama, most of it narrated by the two women who are "married" to Jack Lacey, Lily Alouette and Mattie Lacey, who, between them, produce 12 children.
There's a scene, embellished for sure by memories from Pattrick's sojourn in Menton as a winner of the Katherine Mansfield prize.
And just in case the reader gets bored or bewildered, there's the intervention of "The Archivist" who explains events and smoothes things over.
Despite the novelistic high-wire antics that Pattrick, a writer at the top of her game, inflicts on readers, the story is sound, and the writing addictive. Naughty Lily is shocking but likeable. From the time we meet her practising her ballet steps on a parapet in Menton, she steals our hearts. She's not yet 4 but she does it to scrounge a couple of free baguettes for her hungry parents and a pastry for herself, from the owner of the patisserie.
Her parents are so poor they emigrate to Australia, and end up working in the goldfields near Sydney. Her father dies of dysentery, promptly followed by her mother and an unborn baby.
Lily, by then around 13, manages to make her way back to Foley's Circus in Sydney and pirouette herself into a job as an acrobat.
By the time she's 15 she's fluent in English and can ride two horses, "one pretty foot on each", around the big top. And the adventures begin. Most important she meets the horsemaster, Lacey.
I loved this book with its plot that twists and turns, its excellent description of early New Zealand, especially the great Wellington earthquake of 1855.
Most of all I loved Lily's irrepressible energy and delight in life itself. Pattrick, whose own family have been part of the theatre scene in Wellington for decades, is on familiar ground and it shows. A fantastic romp of a read and instructive as well.
Carroll du Chateau is an Auckland reviewer.