It’s interesting to consider why this book was overlooked and out of print for so long. These days, it’s widely regarded as one of the greatest New Zealand novels, though still not as widely read or known about as it deserves to be.
The story is very cleverly narrated with a subtlety and precision of style that sets it apart from other ‘slaughterhouse gothic’ novels (mostly thinking of Morrieson’s rampant Taranaki yarns here). I’m not aware of many other well known fictional stories set on the East Coast of the North Island—certainly none that are as well known as Whale Rider. In recent years, the most prominent story from that region is probably Taika Waititi’s Boy and there are some genuine similarities between that story and Sydney Bridge, mostly to do with the fairytale narration by a child, themes of honesty/lying and the awkward transition from childhood to adolescence, although Boy is uplifting and hopeful where Sydney Bridge is broken and bleak.
Narrative techniques set a new precedent in New Zealand literature, reflecting the creative ideas of the 1960s when the book was written, with a modernist attention to psychological detail and stream of consciousness/dreamlike logic scuffing the surface of ‘kitchen-sink’ realism. The resulting construction is described by Hamish Clayton as “one of the darkest and most compelling unreliable narrators in New Zealand fiction” (from what I understand, this achievement was hardly recognised during Ballantyne’s lifetime).
One of the techniques I found most interesting was Ballantyne’s use of parenthetical insertions (sometimes long-winded, spanning multiple pages) breaking away from the story mid-sentence, and going off on narrative tangents that accumulate to form a much more disturbing picture of the real inner world of the narrator than the dreamlike childhood perspective of the main text. These different perspectives (emotional awareness/confusion in the moment, memories and inner thoughts from a childhood diary, and the more mature framing narration entangled with prolepsis and analepsis and at times almost bordering on metafictional awareness) are expertly folded and blended through shifting registers which finally crash together in the final chapters where a cynical, broken adult voice recontextualises events that were previously expressed through the voice of a naive child.
Something to consider when re-reading is whether the ambiguity of time/place is a strength or a weakness. The time I’ve spent in Tolaga Bay on the East Cost has definitely coloured the way I perceive the setting of this book visually (I know what it feels like to climb to the top of those hills and look out over the coastline, and my memories are stocked with a ready palette of yellow and brown grasses and chalky cliffs) but without this visual backdrop, I wonder that the way the story is told lends itself to being reimagined in any colonial coastal community? Another significant ambiguity is the confluence of decaying depression-era 1930s rural culture and the schismatic 1950s/1960s urban/rural divide (this could also be framed in relation to the End of the Golden Weather, which similarly bifurcates towards either the 1930s or the 1960s, depending on which version of New Zealand history one wants to emphasise). The book’s portrayal of sexuality is a fairly direct echo of this urban/rural split.
A curious aspect of Sydney Bridge is the complete and total absence of any references to Ngāti Porou and Māori culture in general. Was this done deliberately to make the book more accessible to a wider English-speaking audience? Or was it incidental, based on the experiences of the author growing up in Pāheka communities that were more or less racially segregated?