Some places exert a particularly strong pull on the imagination. One such site is Orangapai, the former tuberculosis sanitorium at Waipiata, positioned in the grand, high-sky landscape of the Maniototo, Otago, New Zealand. The sanitorium inspired Emily Duncan to pen her playscript Waipiata. For novelist Laurence Fearnley, Orangapai was the genesis for her 2007 novel Edwin + Matilda.
The starting point was seeing the buildings up on the hill every time I drove through the Maniototo to my brother’s house in Alexandra. I was curious because they were so substantial and looked out of place on the bare hillside. As well as the hospital and residencies, the sanitorium had its own hydro-electric scheme, a farm, a blacksmith, and a weather station. Its gardens were reported to be the best in the region. I imagined how wonderful the sky must have been at night. I was also struck by the length of time the patients spent there, and how their disease was treated and managed. The sanatorium was isolated, but it was also a place of great caring and kindness, and both of these qualities began to define the tone of the story I wanted to tell. A comment made by a doctor friend, who pointed out that TB used to create a similar level of fear as HIV/Aids, was the catalyst for the characters of Edwin and Matilda.”
American novelist Jane Smiley considers setting in fiction to be intricately linked to theme. This is certainly the case in Edwin + Matilda, whose protagonists move from isolation and a sense of stasis, paralysis or helplessness towards relationship and the desire to create a future. As the action of the story plays out, there is always, in the foreground or in the background, visibly or invisibly, this setting: the vastness and remoteness of the Maniototo landscape, and the experience of the patients in the sanatorium buildings on the hill.
In the following extracts from Edwin + Matilda, Edwin reminisces about his childhood growing up in the sanitorium, where his father was the medical superintendent.
Even the weakest, most poorly of men had hands that retained a memory of strength. He remembered how the hands of the men, palms flat against laundered white sheets, would catch his eye as he walked through the wards in search of his father. It wasn’t the men’s worn faces, their tired expressions that would move him, but their hands. Even as a boy of ten he saw in their large, immobile hands an indication of what had been lost—a life that had been compromised by the onset of disabling disease. It was the hands that suffered—that was what he thought back then. The hands that grieved for a former life: a useful life” (Edwin + Matilda pp 49-50).
Sometimes the patients would give concerts. They had so little to keep them occupied they would stage plays, musical recitals, poetry readings… anything to take their minds off the long hours of inactivity forced upon them. The healthier ones were encouraged to work in the garden; they would grow enough vegetables to feed everyone—staff and patients. Others would work on the small farm or in the sheds, doing everything from blacksmithing to mechanical repairs. The sanitorium was largely self-sufficient, you see. The people who were too sick to garden or work simply stayed in bed. Month in, month out they remained in bed—never moving from one day to the next. It was terrible for them. They had so little in the way of life. Life was stagnant.
But the concerts! I remember the concerts. Lights would be strung across the patients’ dining hall and draped along the eaves. We had our own hydro-electric scheme, our own electricity supply. I tell you, we lived in our own small world. The lights would go up—long rows of them snaking and dipping the length of the main building. Sometimes, in summer, the concerts would go on far into the night. In fact they weren’t concerts as such, but dances. I was too young to take part but whenever there was a dance I would find my back to the main building and I would stand outside and look in and watch the healthier men and women dancing together. So many of the patients were young—no more than twenty or thirty—and I would watch them moving, as if in slow motion, from one end of the community room to the other. They glided, travelling in loose circles around the room like ice skaters—like the ice skaters at Naseby.
At first I used to think I was the only one outside looking in, but then I would glimpse another figure standing by himself, his body obscured by the deep shadows of the trees. It was a man—I could tell that straight away. He had his back turned to the hall and was looking out over the plains, the light from his pipe flaring every now and again as he smoked. It’s hard for someone from the city to understand how black those nights could be: that the lights from the dance hall could be the only lights for miles around. The blackness was warm, soft, I thought—like velvet. That’s how I always pictured it—velvet nights filled with the sound of music. And my father, a dark shadow, standing by himself looking out across the emptiness” (Edwin + Matilda, pp 69-70).
Sue Wootton is co-editor of Corpus.
Laurence Fearnley is a novelist and non-fiction writer whose tenth novel, The Quiet Spectacular, has recently been published by Penguin Random NZ. Laurence lives in Dunedin, New Zealand.