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The multiple genres of Anne Kennedy’s The Time of the Giants – Jackson

April 7, 2013

The Time of the Giants

I don’t suppose you could exactly class this NZ YA fiction (could you?), but the discussion around making sense of it touches on that world…

Looking at the multiple genres drawn on by Anne Kennedy in her The Time of the Giants, Anna Jackson demonstrates how they must be read together to understand the New Zealandness of the story/verse novel…?

As in most romance novels, the really big story of The Time of the Giants takes place after the plot reaches its conclusion. The last chapter of The Time of the Giants neatly marries off the heroine, but it is the last section of the last chapter which contains the biggest story, telling
[‘]How children came and grew big in their arms
and out of their arms and ran about the house
knocking small objects to the ground
by accident one after the other in order
of importance.[‘] (113)
The Time of the Giants is a novel about girlhood, the time before the story of motherhood, home ownership and the ownership (and loss) of fragile household items. It could be termed a Bildungsroman, a novel about growing up….” (p.108)

Like many Young Adult novels, The Time of the Giants is about the enormity of shyness, the difficulty of acting normal, the awkwardness of a first date.
The unlikely, though not impossible, height of the heroine, however, also suggests the genre of the tall tale. Her giant stature is accounted for in the chapter ‘Genealogy headland’ as the result of an Irish ancestry that dates back to the time of the giants, the time of Finn MacCoul and his rival Cuchulain and the other giants of Irish mythology.” (p.108)

The Time of the Giants is also, of course, a book of poetry…” (p.109) and Jackson draws our attention to the proliferation of Australian writing in the genre of the verse novel in the last decade. (“When I was in Brisbane for the Queensland Poetry Festival in 2001,” Jackson notes, “every young poet I talked to had written, or was writing, a verse novel.” (p.173))

The Time of the Giants evokes numerous genre conventions only to (perhaps more surprisingly) fulfil them all. At the same time, it feels less like an assemblage of different genres and more like a genre of its own. Perhaps [-p.110] because the experiment is a complete success, it doesn’t feel ‘experimental’ at all.
In the course of this discussion of The Time of the Giants I will come back to how it works with the conventions of the young adult novel, its use of the structures of fairy tales and film narrative, and the distinctive quality of the writing as poetry. But I want to begin by looking particularly at its reference to Irish mythology, because most important of all is how it works with the genre of myth itself. Much recent criticism of contemporary New Zealand fiction has focused on the question of its representation of New Zealandness in an age of globalisation, and, in particular, on the importance of a New Zealand setting. While The Time of the Giants is given a recognisably New Zealand setting, more interesting is the way it creates a ‘head land,’ or imagined national space, out of the mythologising of settler origins.” (pp.109-110)

“A review of The Time of the Giants by British academic Paul Wright, published in the British Review of New Zealand Studies,” Jackson continues, ” reads the collection as centrally concerned with ‘the importance of belong tin place, of literally stamping an identity on the landscape’, and illustrates this claim with the lines from the poem that prefaces the collection, ‘Rain, drum’: ‘When giants walked the earth / their winter stamp could still be felt / drumming next spring.’ These lines however refer to the giants of Irish mythology, and so this is a stamping that is taking place on Irish soil. This then is not quite the same project of stamping Pākehā identity on the landscape that was undertaken by the writers of the 1930s, when Curnow was writing of looking seawards, and Fairburn of ‘thrust[ing] our way through the bush’.” (p.110)

Jackson’s discussion of the Irish heritage in this novel is a really interesting one; she draws on Kennedy’s A Boy and His Uncle to complicate the issue of Irish (vs British) heritage in settler society and on Robert Sullivan’s Star Waka to complicate the postcolonial interpretation of Kennedy’s use of mythology.

If there is a ‘set piece’ representing new Zealandness in The Time of the Giants, it is not any of the scenes involving Irish giants but the poem which dramatises the viewing of a rugby game. ‘Die die, live live’ was selected for ‘Best New Zealand Poems 2005’. Described by the editor of BNZP, Andrew Johnston, as ‘a tour de force’, this poem provides the verse novel with its climax, the final turning point of the plot, and at the same time is able to stand alone independent of its context as New Zealand’s single greatest rugby poem.” (p.114) I really enjoyed Jackson’s discussion of this poem and her insistence that it be read not just as poetry, but through the lens(es) of the other genre(s) which this book honours. “Kennedy’s rugby poem ‘Die die, live live’ dramatises the game from the point of view of the spectators gathered in front of a television, and the perspective moves closer, as the poem progresses, to the point of view of Moss. Watching the game, like many women, as a way of ‘getting serious’ about a relationship by ”loving what he loves’, she is increasingly caught up in the tension of the ‘lineout whatever that is’ and the emotion […] of the game. At the end of the game, she is so move that ‘without thinking / she stands’ [revealing the giantness of her body (which she has been hiding) to the guy she’s dating].” (p.115)

“The title ‘Die die, live live’, Kennedy’s translation of ‘Ka mate, [-p.116] ka mate, ka ora, ka ora’, captures the complexity of this moment in terms of the romance story at the centre of the verse novel.” (pp.115-116)

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold, mine) Anna Jackson (2009) ‘Anne Kennedy’s The Time of the Giants: Genealogy as Headland’ pp.108-123 in Eds. Anna Jackson and Jane Stafford Floating Worlds: Essays on Contemporary New Zealand Fiction. Victoria University press: Wellington.

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