A Surfeit of Sunsets, Dulcie Castree, Mākaro Press, December 2016
Dulcie Castree wrote short stories and poetry, before writing her novel, A Surfeit of Sunsets, in the mid 1980s. She had secured a publishing detail, the book was readied for publication, had an ISBN number good to go, but at the last moment, she withdrew the book due to editing challenges. Three decades later, her grandson Finnbar Castree Johansson, who lived in the same house and thought of his grandmother as a sibling, discovered the manuscript and decided to self publish it for the family. With the help of his aunties’ editing skills—Dulcie had four daughters—he produced a print run of 100. Dulcie, then in her nineties, died a few weeks before the novel was printed.
I got to see a taste of the novel online last year and I was captivated by what I read. Jane Parkin, an editor, and Mary McCallum from Mākaro Press, fell in love with the family edition, to the extent Mary reissued the novel in 2016. So much haunted me as I read the novel this week. Did Dulcie keep writing after she finished her first novel? Were her poems ever published (apparently her short stories were)? How old was she when she wrote the novel in the 1980s? Lynn Freeman interviewed Finn and Jane when the family edition came out last year, but has the book been reviewed? Does Dulcie, like Janet Frame, have a goose bath of unpublished poems? If so, are they any good? I have been haunted by the book, and I have been haunted by the woman who wrote it. Finn told Lynn that Dulcie’s failed publishing deal ‘screwed with her’ and she ‘didn’t write after it.’ She would have been in her sixties when she wrote the novel. What had she amassed leading up to that point?
I have scant answers to these questions, but I do have the novel, and Finn’s suggestion that the novel was ‘like an extension of her.’ Jane, who so loved the novel and scarcely had to change a word, saw the overriding voice as Dulcie’s. The novel is set in a small fictional town north of Wellington; there are the local residents and there are the Wellington escapees. Avid reader, Shirley has fled from an affair with a married man and a pregnancy termination. After the death of her husband, Poesy (Freda) has fled an empty house, with snobbish attitudes and a yearning to write poetry. Phoebe and Henry look after their niece May after the death of her mother. They, too, are Wellington exiles. There is an adult swimming group and a literary group that is more social than literary. You enter a fictional world brought to dazzling life through character and conversation. I am reminded initially of reading Virginia Woolf – of entering the long looping poetic conduit of her sentences where time slows and everything glows with life and feeling. I am reminded of Katherine Mansfield, and then again, Janet Frame. It is as though I enter a time that is both time-specific and out-of-its-time. For the most part you are becoming familiar with Shirley through her relations with the key residents, especially with May. Dulcie waits before revealing something about the child. It startles and sends me back to read her again. It is a curious thing the way you assume and presume as you read, and that the way we view people can be so constrained or biased. I am going to leave you the opportunity to discover May for yourselves. At the end of the book something dreadful happens that I did not expect.
What is particularly fascinating is how the novel swivels upon notions of poetry: the reading and writing and sharing of poems. May’s teacher thinks poetry is only suitable for children. Henry reads his sister-in-law’s poem notebook and finds unexpected and strange stirrings within himself. He doesn’t understand poetry but he hungers after it, searching for Felicity, and for himself, in the poems he reads: first, FT Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, then the Anthology of Twentieth Century New Zealand Poetry. He was born in England; he sees himself in one and then not the other, and then vice versa. Poesy hopes to ‘produce a poem, phoenix-like, from the ruins of her life.’ Francis, the other teacher, is composing a poem in his head, as though anybody can do it: ‘What a common thing poetry is.’ When he reads poetry, ‘he leaps straight into the pool of words like his belly-flopping boys and comes up dripping with joy.’ Poesy ‘persists in believing she can record the universe and beyond in eight rhyming rhymes.’ On the one hand, Dulcie delivers the portrait of a small town and the ripples effected by the summer gatecrashers, while on the other hand she builds a portrait of poetry, the way it is absorbed and borne and sung.
That the novel exudes an ethereal timelessness lures you in. The work resists narrative models, yet it offers a satisfying completeness, a voice that stitches you into a fictional world to the point you are part of it, as though you might give Poesy feedback on her poem. The sentences are both lyrical and lightly spun. When I finished reading I had that melancholy feeling you get at the end of a long summer holiday when the curtains are pulled, the bach door is locked, and you are beginning the long drive home, caught in an intertidal zone of freedom and routine, of drifting thoughts and daily chores, of different food and regular meals. Melancholic, too, because I am reminded of the shadows that women writers have occupied in New Zealand. I am haunted by this poetic book, and I want to peruse and pursue the threads that I have raised.
Author photo: Catherine Palethorpe
Radio New Zealand interview
Unity Book launch
Mākaro Press page