WHA, 900 pp, $34.95 hb
After all the acrimony and gossip generated by the success of Bryce Courtenay, it is surprising to discover that the advertising director and newspaper columnist is a talented writer.
In his second blockbuster, Tandia, Courtenay reveals a nineteenth-century novelist’s ability to paint the large picture, to describe the community as a whole, and to focus within this overall perspective on the minute details of everyday experience. Linking these perspectives is a firm hold on larger-than-life characters. The heroine Tandia, the hero Peekay, the secondary figures such as Mama Tequila the brothel owner, or E.W. the Oxford don – all are both clichéd and persuasive at the same time. This is because they belong to a fictional club reaching back to Dickens – a world in which narrative pronouncement on social problems is achieved through the emphasis on a single signifier of appearance or behaviour. Tandia’s supernatural beauty, Mama Tequila’s capacious figure, E.W.’s pipe – these are enough to relay the values they represent: the sexually victimised innocent visionary, the shrewd, generous, but fated mother-figure, the liberal mentor. But it is from an underlying narrative level of pictorial detail that the real reading pleasure is derived. Courtenay’s writing strengths are with the vignette – his finely toned and intricate pictures of the everyday, rather than the heroic, overblown moment. For example: