31 Days of Stories 2012, Day 30: “Neptune’s Necklace” by Alice Petersen

May 30, 2012 by · 2 Comments 

From All the Voices Cry

In his guide for fiction writers, The Art of Fiction, one of the exercises John Gardner provides reads as follows: “Describe a lake as seen by a young man who has just committed murder. Do not mention the murder.” The point, of course, is to develop the ability to convey a mood without being overly explicit or expository. Mood should arise organically out of a work of fiction, not be larded onto it in an artificial way.

The thing about mood, though, is that it is sometimes inextricably tied into setting. Locating a story in 1939 Poland, for instance, will infuse that story with a certain resonance for readers, no matter what the specifics of that story may be. But what if a story is set in a less archetypal, but nonetheless fraught, locale? How are readers expected to react, and how does a reader’s reaction change should he or she be cognizant of the setting’s import?

“Neptune’s Necklace” focuses on a seventy-three-year-old artist living in New Zealand. As the story opens, the artist, Hattie, walks along the beach with her dog. There is nothing particularly unusual about this scene, except for the focus on images of death or passage. As she walks along the beach, Hattie imagines seeing “a clutch of child-sized shades running before her,” and pictures them “gazing at a dead mollymawk where it had washed up against a piece of driftwood.” The word “shades,” although somewhat outmoded, clearly refers to ghosts, and a mollymawk is a kind of albatross, a type of bird that has obvious literary connotations. We later discover that “the shades were girls, all of them, and one of the shades was Hattie’s daughter.”

The balance of the story involves Hattie retreating home to evade the rains that occur daily, and being interrupted in her business by two young people whose car has broken down. The couple, a young man and a young woman, ask to use Hattie’s phone and Hattie offers to make them tea. In the course of their discussion, it transpires that the young woman is an art history student who has to do an essay “on someone contemporary.” She asks about Hattie’s influences, to which the older woman replies, “I don’t have any influences.”

The only significant influence Hattie has is her daughter, one of the three shades she imagines seeing at the beach. Her daughter, along with two other girls, died when a “rogue current” dragged her out to sea: this is the event that Hattie has simultaneously been running from and been unable to evade ever since. All well and good, and a perfectly crafted example of a rather melancholy domestic tale.

And yet.

Hattie lives near a beach by the city of Dunedin in New Zealand, and the opening sentence of the story makes reference to a salt marsh. These details imply that the beach in question is Aramoana Beach, near Otago harbour in New Zealand. Aramoana Beach is the site of a 1990 massacre of thirteen people by a lone gunman, the most egregious instance of gun violence in New Zealand’s history. “I did not want to write about the massacre itself,” Petersen says, “so I made a parallel narrative, as my own act of memorial.”

It is coincidental that I read the interview with Petersen prior to reading her story. But how does a knowledge of Aramoana Beach’s history change the effect of the story, if at all? How would one react to the melancholy aspect of the tale if one thought it had no real world resonance? Does the knowledge of the 1990 massacre lend Hattie’s story additional gravitas? Does it tug at a reader differently? In Gardner’s terms, Petersen describes the setting of the massacre without ever mentioning the massacre. The story stands on its own. Armed with the background knowledge of what the story’s setting implies, how does that change a reader’s experience of it? Since it is impossible to erase the knowledge of what the setting implies, it is impossible for me to answer these questions. I would be interested to find out, however.