Kehua!

For students:

How she fits in to a literary landscape

For obvious reasons, I like this account. It is a review by an Australian literary figure I respect.

From The Australian January 8th 2011

Weldon brings light touch to dark material

Peter Craven

Kehua! A Ghost Story, By Fay Weldon, Corvus, 325pp,     

Fay Weldon is one of those writers who can sometimes seem too smart, too quick on her feet, to be a novelist of the first rank.

She can toss off a book in accordance with a bright idea, or a commercial one, and sound more elegant and spry than deeply felt or real.

Well, so you might think, but in the case of Kehua! you would be wrong. This is a marvellous work full of weird and piercing things and rich with feelings at once strange and intimately familiar.

A woman, kicking 80, sits at home in London thinking about her family. There’s her smart granddaughter, hitched to a gayish fashion entrepreneur whom she wants to ditch for an actor who plays vampires. There’s the granddaughter’s niece, a schoolgirl slut who’s run away from her mother, who is now a lesbian. And there’s the 80-year-old’s daughter, mother to the smart woman and the lesbian, who makes a late entrance as a Christian living in Manchester.

Or was it more complicated than this? What role did her adoptive parents, in particular her suave doctor “father”, play in this long-ago drama, so swollen with blood and mystery and the nightmare shadows, refracted as hilarity, of murder and incest?

It sounds like a paradox too far: a novel of high comedy compounded of murder and incest, seen through the aged consciousness of the girl who was the near-victim of it all but who becomes complicit, one way or another, with wielding the knife, doing them in.

Or so it can seem, because Kehua! is a strange and bewitching book that is as much about the life of the imagination as it is about anything else. The story of the old woman and her family is told by another character, a novelist who shares with both her protagonist and Weldon a New Zealand childhood and a scathing cold-eyed intelligence.

The novelist keeps interrupting the action to present herself sitting in the basement of her house, smelling the smells of its past (the Edwardian cigar smoke), listening to the voices of the flirting housemaids and the gruff master of the house, and feeling the presence of a loved dog, long dead.

If the fictional heroine in the foreground broods on the murder seed encoded, perhaps, into her genealogy, the novelist is spooked by the preternatural presence of the past all around her.

At the centre of both worlds, as the novelist skips and slides through the work of creation, there is the motif of the Kehua, the band of Maori furies, who seem to have flown all the way from New Zealand to complicate the lives of these Chelsea worldlings and wastrels with their prickling intentions of killing people, screwing family members and evading the blood and smoke and sacrifice of human destiny, so tragic and funny by turns.

Run, run, run, the Kehua suggest in their comical pure-vowelled Kiwi accents. Laugh, laugh, laugh is the ambiguous Weldon response. But with such a complicated poise and counterbalance that at any given point you scarcely know where you are in this gorgeous Chinese box of a book, though the drama has an utter clarity and the prose a nearly absolute precision.

The interfering novelist, who is prey to the phantoms of somebody else’s past, and the fictional character bemusedly acting out the blood guilt of her own past, give this book a delicious moodiness.

The preoccupation with the mechanics of fiction-making is like late Coetzee, though the treatment is busier and more gag-driven. It’s also completely naturalised in its own terms. The novelist who usurps the action of the book and is presented as the puppet mistress of its movement is herself a character and never messes with her creation on any connected plain.

But there is also an exhilarating and absolute heartlessness in Kehua!, a complete refusal of sentimentalism, a kind of essence of ice at its centre, that is one clue to its credibility. Weldon creates an original mythography of the adventurer in the ageing human soul that is like the great Muriel Spark. Like Spark, she has a supremely light touch with the darkest and deadliest things, and like her, she laughs, with derision at the fabled wasteland of her creation.

The vision of Kehua! is by turns cynical, savage and weird. It is zany and will allow no one to take the mickey with it. It’s been everywhere before.

It would be easy to describe this as a minor novel if it were not also a kind of masterpiece. There are novelists with high and mighty reputations who will never write a page that can match it.

Peter Craven was founding editor of Quarterly Essay.

Kehua!

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Kehua! Review from time of UK publication
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