A Surfeit of Sunsets by Dulcie Castree.
Wellington: Mākaro Press (2016).
RRP: $35. Pb, 204pp.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Coleman.
Dulcie Castree died in 2016, just before the launch of this edition of her book, A Surfeit of Sunsets. Her novel was written in 1985/6 and was digitised by her grandson and given to her as a handbound gift for Christmas 2015. It was then published in a limited run by Rebel Press. The sell-out success of it lead to an offer by Mary McCallum of Mākaro Press to re-issue it in its present form.
A Surfeit of Sunsets is clever and curious. Initial impressions echo feelings of The End of the Golden Weather by Bruce Mason: a seaside community, the long season of childhood and summer, simplicity, a cast of strong characters including a child-like adult central to the story, and inevitably, a loss of innocence.
In Surfeit, firstly we are introduced to May, in the 1980’s, in her safe place, holding an old copy of The Golden Treasury ‘reading in the sandhills as the sun goes down. She turns the pages slowly and sings the words she thinks are her mother’s. They are her mother’s … May’s voice is hoarse, her words are blurred, but when she reads, it is in her mother’s voice, so that’s all right. If the words lose themselves and the tunes never leave May’s head, that doesn’t matter either … May hears all the voices’ (pp 7-8). May wears ‘the white socks and brown sandals, the bodiced, gathered dress of a long-ago twelve-year-old. May is not twelve. She is over forty but the smooth skin and eyes do not lie. They tell the story of May’s life truthfully. Felicity [her mother] was forty when May was born, too brown, too calm’ (p 10). ‘No-one thinks of May as a woman with a voice of her own’ (p 19).
Immersed in a sense of place throughout, we too hear voices – those of the past, of the locals, those in the Treasury. We are submerged in Kāpiti’s Taiwhenua. This town (its name signally a sparsely populated, non-urban area) is not hard to decipher, it ‘plays host to the holidaymakers in the season and possibly even has a life of its own’ (p 27).
Shirley arrives from Wellington at the beach settlement, to get away from things for a while, to rest and discover her own safe place, ‘following an established tradition. It’s all there in the two centuries of English novels lining her walls. Send your ailing young, your failing old, your broken heart, your bleeding lungs to the seaside’ (p 34). Shirley hires a bach on The Parade. She’s recently experienced emotional and sensory overload, she wants relief but must suffer ‘the full brunt of the sunsets … ‘Every night?’ Does one want such regularity in anything, let alone sunsets? Surely they should be a sometime thing’ (p 26). Shirley gets to know Taiwhenua and its inhabitants and forms a strong friendship with May.
Phoebe and Henry – May’s guardians – are delightful, simple and kind and do their best for May and sensible Joan is their loyal friend. Miss Elizabeth Vogel is the schoolmistress, harsh and disciplined. Francis is a new teacher at the school. He escorts the children to swimming classes at the local pool where they coincide with Adults Only, and where there are definite rules. Here Francis falls for Shirley: ‘Oh, Shirley, Shirley, Shirley. It was when you held May’s hand you took my heart’ (p 100). Fat Wally is the local Peeping Tom, and recent arrival, Poesy, an import from the city, writes poetry but must go elsewhere for Quality and Culture. My sketched biographies belie Castree’s layered characterisation, her fantastic dialogue and lyricism woven through a wonderful story.
The writer’s respect for the reader is clear, through an intriguing 3-way relationship of characters/reader/writer. All of us feel personal involvement and concern for May, for the cohesion of the small community; together we wonder about things. On our behalf the writer asks: ‘Surely someone has something to add here. Even in Taiwhenua there are voices to bring us down to earth… Will their voices be enough?’ (p 17), ‘What does May make of it?’ (p 126), ‘What will Phoebe do?’ (p 204).
At the supermarket in Taiwhenua, Poesy ‘fingers, exclaims and discards …’ and ‘there is no fast lane’ (p 147), whereas in ‘town the shops are full of things you don’t need but long to buy’ (pp 156-7). Gulfs between country and city lifestyles, old ways and new, sandhills versus concrete, beauty and ugliness, calm and tension are all there. And yes – of course we already know – by the end of the book we’re reminded such contrasts are not black and white. There are, however, a lot of sunsets.
As her well-being improves, Shirley also begins to miss the city and May is fascinated by the big city car that trolls the Parade, windows down and its music filling the air. And when the climax comes – mid-chapter – the cold, first person narrative is unexpected and shocking.
Having read A Surfeit of Sunsets twice for reviewing purposes, I immediately want to read it again. I commend Mākaro Press for publishing this book, for its professional ‘flapped’ edition, bright with an evocative seaside cover.
Elizabeth Coleman lives in Waikanae and has a strong interest in the poetry scene on the Kapiti Coast. She has been published in journals and magazines such as 4th Floor, takahē; in anthologies including Dear to Me, Swings & Roundabouts; has participated in performance poetry entitled Eyes in the Skies, and has judged competition poetry.