Stephanie Jones: Book Review - Dunedin by Shena Mackay

Publish Date
Thursday, 7 July 2016, 1:25PM
By Stephanie Jones

Jack Mackenzie is the priapic sire of Dunedin, Shena Mackay’s 1992 novel (newly reissued by Hachette) about the 1909 arrival of Mackenzie and his wife Louisa in the southern city to tend to a flock in need of ministry. Unprincipled and a bit of a bully, especially to son Sandy, Mackenzie’s story is told briskly in passages that bookend the primary narrative, which follows the travails of his descendants in 1989 London.

There, Sandy’s children live in middle age and a slough of despond, “the last rotting fruit on their branch of the family tree.” Shop owner Olive has an unlamented husband behind her and has lately been tossed out of a relationship with a writer, a featureless drip who nurses Booker fantasies. William’s suffering is more acute and corporeal: he lost his career in education after a pupil was killed on a school trip, a cataclysm that also ended a long affair with a married colleague.

Olive has moved in to William’s family-size home, “not without qualms. Was there not a whiff of failure about a brother and sister living together?” Public opprobrium is of no concern to a man who lives with silent judgement, while Olive’s regard for humanity skews toward the misanthropic.

A third protagonist is a teenager, Jay Pascal, the product of a series of care homes, whose genealogy is linked to the Mackenzies by a less legitimate thread. His collision with Olive in a café one day is literal, and their connection fleeting; she leaves him in Crystal Palace Parade, facing a precarious future. He has come from New Zealand to seek out Dunedin, the crumbling house where, an occupant informs him, “the ruined people live.” It was not always so; Dunedin, we learn, is Jay’s ancestral dwelling.

Mackay wields her characters like a puppet-master, making them dance on the edge of madness and tragedy, often motivated by little more than instinct. She is a master of the absurd, drawing pathos from comedy and vice versa. Olive abducts a child who is swiftly delivered to safety by William; later, in an echo of the original baby-snatching scene, she sits on a bus, watching as a fellow passenger ignores her squalling child, then deals an elbow to the side of the mother’s head as she disembarks. William, more noble and hopeful than his sister, makes a thankless interference in a robbery at his local corner store.

Though others are woven into Dunedin’s tapestry, it is Olive and William who enthrall. Jay stands as a discomfiting reminder that a good life is dependent on the vagaries of luck, while Olive’s former beau, Terry Turner, is too close to the everyday office boor to entertain. Flashes of earlier lives intrigue: “Danny and Olive Schwarz, married in Hastings, repented at Leicester.” Familial patterns become clear in the figure of Jean, the mother of Olive and William, whose diffidence recalls a shell-shocked Louisa Mackenzie, terrified by rumours of cannibalism, as she strives to make a home fine enough for her husband’s swollen ego.

The harassed Sandy, it transpires, matured into a conman whose honest façade was polished by Jean, a woman of such immutable morality that her children speculated over whether she knew how her husband funded their life. So strong is her instinct for peacekeeping that she succumbs to a kitchen fire rather than interrupt a phone conversation with an anguished Olive. These variant personalities are drawn with a precision that marks Mackay as a keen adjudicator of the contest between nature and nurture.

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