Salt Picnic by Patrick Evans – book review

by Charlotte Grimshaw / 10 August, 2017

Author Patrick Evans. Photo/Victoria Birkinshaw

An author responds imaginatively to Janet Frame’s turbulent time on Ibiza.

Patrick Evans’s new novel is part of a trilogy that, he says, reflects the influence of Janet Frame on his creative imagination and his understanding of the world. The first, Gifted, focused on the relationship between Frame and Frank Sargeson. The second, The Back of His Head (2015), was a satire on literary fame; now Salt Picnic is Evans’s “imaginative response” to the period Frame spent on the Spanish island of Ibiza in 1956 and 1957.

Since Gifted featured real people, Evans couldn’t avoid being judged on his accuracy, with readers admiring his skilful ventriloquism, and others pointing out errors in the portrayal. Although Evans acknowledges in his author’s note that Salt Picnic is his response to a period in Frame’s life, he maintains his new character, Iola Farmer, is not a representation of Frame. Instead, she’s simply “a young woman who is out in the world for the first time”.

Given the similarities, though, individual readers will vary in their willingness to suspend comparisons with Frame, particularly since the author’s note lists research on her time in Ibiza. If anyone reading Gifted had the faint sense of Frame held captive by the writer while being forced to bend to his will, this new set-up won’t entirely dispel that impression.

Evans has said his motivation for focusing on this time and location in Frame’s life (while depicting a different woman altogether) came from the capacity Frame had to “find cultural and historical fault lines and go there”. She had, as he puts it, “an almost naive, innocent feel for the Ground Zero of mid- to late-20th-century history”.

Ibiza in the time of Franco was that sort of “Ground Zero”. Evans has created a vivid, intensely detailed portrait of a community battered by violence, so traumatised by the horrors of the Spanish Guerra that a culture of willed forgetting prevails. Divisions between the leftists and the Francoites simmer, with bitter feuds and old hatreds surfacing, yet the past is never openly acknowledged.

Iola rents a room in the town, where she tries to write, learn the language and acclimatise. A silent watcher, as inexperienced and awkward as a child, she puzzles, misinterprets, invents and mistranslates.

Unlike Frame, Iola doesn’t go in for humour, nor is she verbally witty. She’s passive and helpless, struggling to make connections. She crouches on the floor, writing in pencil on scraps of paper. She has little understanding of what’s happening, and frequently has no idea why she does things. This is typical of her thought processes: “… she’s not quite sure any more what it was that happened back then at the lagoon. It’s as if she doesn’t know how to think about it.”

Like Frame, Iola has a relationship with an American on Ibiza. In Iola’s case, the affair possibly results in sex and perhaps a pregnancy, and possibly a miscarriage, although it may just be her period. Iola is supposed to be a dreamer who blends fact and fiction, but Evans portrays her as so bewildered that she seems almost autistic, and the strange feeling rises, again, of a character imprisoned by the writer – visions of the captive Frame, perhaps. It’s an oddity of Evans’s own making, one that the reader can’t help registering. It only makes the novel more interesting, though. As Iola struggles to interpret the historical fault lines, a compelling sense of place emerges: the cruel history, the savagery beneath the beauty, the “thisness” of Iola’s world.

Salt Picnic, by Patrick Evans (Victoria University Press, $30).

This article was first published in the November 18, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage

Latest

What you need to know about knee replacements
105774 2019-05-26 00:00:00Z Health

What you need to know about knee replacements

by Ruth Nichol

Replacement knee joints are giving thousands of Kiwis decades of service, but don’t rush to get one.

Read more
How a hit romcom took indigenous Aussie star Miranda Tapsell back to her roots
106072 2019-05-25 00:00:00Z Movies

How a hit romcom took indigenous Aussie star Miran…

by Russell Baillie

Miranda Tapsell tells Russell Baillie how she came up with Top End Wedding and why its Northern Territory setting means so much.

Read more
The link between cardiovascular health and dementia
105915 2019-05-25 00:00:00Z Health

The link between cardiovascular health and dementi…

by Nicky Pellegrino

New research into the brain has found that cardiovascular ill health is linked to cognitive decline and dementia.

Read more
Following the call of New Zealand's abandoned freezing works
106317 2019-05-25 00:00:00Z Life in NZ

Following the call of New Zealand's abandoned free…

by John Summers

John Summers wonders if his abiding interest in New Zealand’s abandoned freezing works is actually a long farewell to his grandfather.

Read more
Tech Week: Time to celebrate Aotearoa’s own overlooked moonshot
106359 2019-05-25 00:00:00Z Tech

Tech Week: Time to celebrate Aotearoa’s own overlo…

by Peter Griffin

“We bow down to this idea of Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos going to Mars, when here in our own country, we had the equivalent."

Read more
Kiwi composer John Rimmer: An instrumental figure
106331 2019-05-24 11:09:35Z Music

Kiwi composer John Rimmer: An instrumental figure

by Elizabeth Kerr

Contemporaries and students are paying tribute to composer John Rimmer and his musical legacy.

Read more
Why Caroline Easther is thanking her Lucky stars
106325 2019-05-24 10:39:21Z Music

Why Caroline Easther is thanking her Lucky stars

by James Belfield

Well-known drummer Caroline Easther has stepped out front with a debut solo album.

Read more
Comedian buys Destiny Church's new political party's domain names
106322 2019-05-24 00:00:00Z Politics

Comedian buys Destiny Church's new political party…

by RNZ

Comedian Tim Batt buys up domains for new Brian Tamaki-backed political party.

Read more