Lewisville by Alexandra Tidswell.
Wellington, Eastbourne: Submarine, an imprint of Mākaro Press (2016).
Reviewed by Elizabeth Coleman.
Alexandra Tidswell’s first novel, Lewisville is based on real people and events spanning the years between 1815 and 1871. It tells of “escape, loss and reinvention familiar to immigrants the world over” (Epilogue p 367). And plenty more besides. The reader is led through the years via Martha’s life and family, from dirt poor beginnings in England, to Australia and New Zealand. It is a tale of determination, the tenacity of the human spirit and provides a vivid picture of people, places and events, the class structure and its social markers of the time.
The novel opens with Martha on her fourteenth birthday, denied the chance to attend school and living a life of drudgery with her unpleasant mother and a houseful of siblings:
“As long as she can remember, she’s been waiting for some kind of divine intervention that will see the error of her birth circumstances corrected. She knows in her bones she isn’t supposed to be living this life. There has to be something more” (p 8).
Martha knows her potential, she feels “ill with longing for all the things she doesn’t have … She’ll find a way yet to make something of herself” (p 11).
In Willoughby, Martha and her family walk to church and Martha meets Ann, her only friend:
“The church bells drown out their greetings. The bells of St Nicholas are the tom-tom drums of the hamlet. When a villager lies ill in bed and all hope is lost, the bells ring: nine times for a man, six for a woman and then a peal for every year of his or her life. The sound travels down the shady lanes, over pigsties and through open windows, announcing to all that one of their own is near death. Martha can barely countenance the terror of lying and counting the tolling bells, hearing your own demise so emphatically foretold” (p 14).
The author has skill in creating a sense of place. In each country, there is a definite feeling of being there. The whole novel has a sense of presence through the author’s clever use of the present tense, making our involvement in the story immediate, though we know Tidswell is telling of times past. It is an excellent strategy – the reader participates with the main characters and makes discoveries alongside them.
Martha falls for a local lad, Ebenezer Grimm, who, like his criminal family, “also has a reputation for enterprise” (p 16). Martha’s mind “is distracted by the companionable closeness of this unusual boy”. She thinks: “His parents might be no good, but he’s different” (p 18). His family name pretty much dictates the type of life Martha lands herself with, babies coming one after another. Ebenezer has dreams but he’s a hopeless provider; he is kind and likeable. Like Martha, you want to shake him.
After many brushes with the law:
“At the Northamptonshire Assizes at Lent, Ebenezer Grimm pleads guilty to the theft of twenty-one chickens, and a bag to put them in. He is sentenced to transportation to Van Diemen’s Land. Martha does not come to the gaol to say goodbye” (p 51).
Fortunately for the reader, the author does not say goodbye to Ebenezer either.
Martha, through her iron will and belief in her own ability, makes a radical decision which results in her own immigration to New Zealand. Remember, this is at a time of no social welfare benefits; courage, mammoth effort and self-belief are needed to re-position and make that “something” of herself. It is a bitter-sweet tale. This reader asked, constantly: how could she do it? I cannot tell you because it would spoil your own journey of discovery.
Lewisville is an easy read, often gripping, packed full of interesting characters. In particular, its descriptions of the Wakefield Brothers’ NZ Company and empathetic Māori involvement in early settlement are excellent, so much so that it could easily be used as a set book at secondary school, encompassing history, social studies, geography, as well as literature. There has been a great deal of research behind the writing of what is a remarkable first novel.
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.