From the Sublime to the Rebellious: Representations of Nature in the Urban Novels of a Contemporary New Zealand Author
Type of content
Although nature is a dominant presence both in historical New Zealand literature and in New Zealand's current international image, literary critics observe a tendency on the part of young writers to neglect nature in favour of more human, urban and cultural themes. I write against this perception, basing my argument on the hypothesis that such urban-based literature may in fact be centrally concerned with the natural world and with human-nature relations. In locating nature within the urban fictional environment, I demonstrate a model of analysis that extends literary critical approaches to nature both within New Zealand literature and within the field of ecocriticism, both of which are largely consumed with analysing representations of sublime, non-urban nature. I test this urban ecocritical method of reading in my analysis of Catherine Chidgey's three novels, In a Fishbone Church, Golden Deeds and The Transformation, all of which adhere to the human-centred trend typical of contemporary New Zealand novels. I reveal within Chidgey's fiction a gradual progression away from archetypal representations of the sublime toward a more complex, fractured and rebellious variety of nature that co-exists alongside humans within urban space. Thus, while the characters in her first novel predominantly interact with nature as a sublime, non-urban entity, those in her second and third novels face the daily possibility of encountering "the wild" within domesticated settings that are apparently severed from any connection with the natural world. This kind of urbanised feral nature poses a significant threat to Chidgey's characters, overtly in the form of the powerful natural elements, and covertly through the myriad varieties of transformed nature with which they surround themselves. I read this portrayal of nature as a commentary on contemporary modernity's relationship with the natural environment, and I suggest that this kind of agentive, autonomous nature demands a new theory of environmentalism which will consider nature as an actor alongside humans.