Persephone book 117 The Godwits Fly is a semi-autobiographical novel by New Zealand author Robin Hyde (born Iris Wilkinson), of which I had extraordinary high hopes. The prose is glorious, poetic and continually a delight to read. Hyde’s descriptions of landscape particularly are sumptuous as are the snippets of poetry we get throughout the novel. However, while there is nothing to actually dislike about this novel, I found myself slightly underwhelmed though I don’t know why. Perhaps I just expected a little too much, it is still a very good novel. Robin Hyde’s writing style is not always easy, her prose as I have said is wonderful, but it isn’t always straightforward, not always conventional, the perspective alters a little as the characters in the novel grow up.
Iris Wilkinson, (AKA Robin Hyde) was a journalist, novelist and poet, born in South Africa, she moved with her family to Wellington, New Zealand when she was a child. Like the character, Eliza – who is at the centre of The Godwits Fly Iris was born into a family who considered themselves English. They can’t help but keep their eyes turned North – to the England they never travel to. They strive hard to be conventional, and limit the influence of children from other families, and in doing this of course they never really fit in anywhere. The Godwits of the title are a small migratory bird – that fly North from New Zealand at summers end, though they don’t go to England, they fly to Siberia. As Robin Hyde explains in her foreword…
“And it is true, too, that the godwits flying north, never go near England. They fly to Siberia. But to a child in this book, it was all more simple. A long way was a long way. North was mostly England, or a detour to England.”
In reading this novel it is hard to be sure where Iris’s life ends and Eliza’s begins, there are so many sad parallels between their lives. Iris Wilkinson’s life ended in 1939 just before the outbreak of World War two – she killed herself, after only about a year in England. The novel doesn’t end like that – though the seeds of great sadness have been sown for Eliza who as the novel ends is just twenty-one.
The novel opens when Eliza Hannay is a child, she has one older sister and one younger – some years later a baby brother is born. The family move house regularly – Eliza’s childhood memories a series of less than perfect rented houses, going from the hills down into the suburbs of Wellington. Here Eliza’s mother Augusta struggles to maintain an air of respectability on her office clerk husband’s salary. Mr Hannay is something of a trial to his wife, they row a lot, and seem to have little in common. John Hannay reads voraciously – bringing home a variety of colourful characters with whom he enjoys socialist debate. My favourite section of the novel was the first half – when Eliza and her siblings are growing up, playing, having childhood adventures, going to school and observing the complicated world of their adult parents with the honest eyes of childhood.
“‘Daddy got drunk once, and I hit him over the head with my hobby-horse,’ said Eliza. Augusta’s profile went bleak and set, though she only said. ‘Trust you for remembering.’ Eliza wondered, ‘what is the little jumpy thing that makes you talk out loud when you promised you weren’t going to?’”
As the siblings get older – other influences come into play. However, Eliza and her sister Carly can’t entirely free themselves of the home influences. Carly becomes engaged – for a while, and toys with the idea of nursing before discovering her mistake. Eliza – who from childhood has written poetry – is more complex than her sister. She feels that like the godwits they need to fly, fly away to England, at school she is mocked rather for her devotion to a place she has never been. Eliza falls in love with Timothy Cardew – one of her father’s socialist friends. Timothy loves Eliza too – though not enough to stay with her. Timothy dreams of travel and exploration, and so Eliza is left behind – though Timothy writes from time to time. Timothy inspires much of the poetry that Eliza writes, eventually producing a small book of her poetry. There is a lovely scene where her father attempts to move his daughters poorly printed little book into a more prominent position is his local bookshop – much to the fury of the assistant. The bookseller explains how local produced books are not expected to sell.
“Courage is a beautiful sleek horse, she thought, a thoroughbred, with its eyes blazing and the wind tapering round its ardent flanks. It is sensitive and swift, nerved for the one crucial thing. I haven’t got that. Only the slow, prodding mule-gait: and I give in often, and cry for help, but when help doesn’t come, I can manage, as a rule.”
More sadness is to follow for Eliza – I don’t want to talk about all that occurs in the novel – although most of it seems to mirror Iris Wilkinson’s own life – and Ann Thwaite’s preface to the Persephone edition tells us the sad story of where the name Robin Hyde came from.
All in all, there is an awful lot to like in this book, and thinking about it retrospectively now, my slight feeling of being underwhelmed might have had more to do with my mood than anything else.