“When she and Edie had stepped out of the railway station, she’d stepped into a different country. Palmerston North seemed an innocent, shallow place.” Ruby has fled Auckland with her ten-year-old daughter, hoping to start afresh. But with little money and only the clothes they are wearing, Palmerston North proves to be not so innocent, and the horrors of Ruby’s past not so easy to escape.
A respectable veneer is a portrait not just of a desperate woman and those she meets, but also of a time and place – 1950s New Zealand. With World War Two a recent memory, and causing ongoing trauma, the characters are a mixture of those who are optimistic and those who are despairing. There are those making a new start, and new plans, and those who are bitter over the loss of a loved one, or of lost opportunities, of necessarily abandoned future lives.
Ruby is a damaged woman, having grown up in fear, having had a child in a far from loving environment, having had to escape abuse where she should have received comfort. When she did find a place, in Freemans Bay, Auckland, she knew it wasn’t ideal, and that some would see her choices as reprehensible, but she had no idea how bad things would get. And for a while she had the friendship of a woman called Angel. In the end it had been Angel who helped her and Edie escape. When Ruby arrives in Palmerston North, she is traumatised, brittle and sharp-tongued, and she doesn’t trust a soul.
Having been victimised since she was a child, Ruby is not surprised by lecherous possible employers, or bitter judgmental women. She eventually grows to like some individuals, but knowing her circumstances could bring trouble to them, she can be quite cruel towards them. She is attracted to the Bon Brush man, Douglas, and to the hat-shaper, Janice. She is in awe of Madame, a stylish Albanian refugee with a sad history, and she has a sparring relationship with Frank, Douglas’ friend. And of course, she has rambunctious Edie, but: “As much as she loved her daughter, there were times…”
As the plot unfolds, Ruby ends up “holding onto each day with her fingernails”. The anxiety and concerns of all the characters, are seen against the backdrop of a society trying to rid itself of war. There is the ‘New Look’ fashion: “her smart blue coat, which fitted at the waist, flared from the hip and swung as she walked”. There are the movies with their glamorous stars, and an excuse to openly cry. And there are the jazzy expressions, not quite as coarse as those left behind by the American servicemen, but “Crikey dick!”
Just as Ruby arrived in Palmerston North wanting to think she had left the bad things of Auckland behind, servicemen arrived back from the war wanting to think they had left the horrors of war behind. You were a “commie” if you didn’t stand for the Queen in the cinema. The men had served their time and wanted things their way; “No one would take the word of a woman.” There is a head-in-the-sand attitude that “These things don’t happen here”. Not an environment in which anyone out of the ordinary can thrive.
Ruby is a great character, quite unpleasant in many ways, yet very sympathetic. She is trying so hard to fabricate a life for herself and Edie, just as she is constantly making clothes for them – things to make them appear they belong. Her friendship with Douglas and Frank is fragile; Frank has been physically injured during the war, both he and Douglas psychologically. Douglas stammers whenever he is putting on a front, which is most of the time, which infuriates Ruby, and the reader; “It took an effort not to despise him for it”. Wrapped up in his own sad situation, Douglas is so naïve about the dangerous place society can be for a single woman with a child.
As her past catches up with her, things close in around Ruby. The danger she has put herself and those she loves in, and seeing news of what happened to Angel back in Auckland, hits Ruby like a brick and she starts falling apart, “everything seemed scrambled”. As the tension builds, she becomes even more quick to anger, taking out her anxiety on all, including Edie. Then you remember Ruby is just a young woman who has never had anyone to look after her, something she craves. And she is not alone; all the characters want to find someone to blame for the tragedy that unfolds.
A respectable veneer is a great historical novel with a thriller element. A respectable veneer might be what Ruby is wanting, but the clever ending suggests that that it is what the whole of New Zealand took on after the war – most New Zealanders wanting to enjoy the post-war peace, rather than remember what that peace had cost, or acknowledge those left by the wayside. A great debut novel.