The Sepulchre by the Sea: Repressing the Violent History of New Zealand in Sydney Bridge Upside Down

Posted by Timothy Jones on June 13, 2018 in Uncategorized tagged with

By Edith Paton

Ian Conrich portrays the New Zealand landscape as one of concealment: a green, clean paradise with a dark and treacherous underbelly. He goes on to say that national literature and popular opinion point to this dichotomous topography.[1]  If then what lies beneath is hidden, the land itself can be viewed as representative of a crypt in which the despair, isolation and loss which encapsulates the nation’s literature[2] is concealed.  In her introduction to Jean Devanny’s banned novel The Butcher Shop (1926) Heather Roberts asserts that violence in the New Zealand novel is common to many New Zealand novelists and part of a ‘particular and strong literary tradition’ giving their ‘own interpretation of life and country, and provid[ing] us with another way of seeing ourselves.’[3]  The banning of The Butcher Shop is indicative of Erin Mercer’s claim, in an article on R. H. Morrieson’s The Scarecrow (1963), that both publication and popularity are difficult to achieve when the reader is forced to see a violent or disquieting New Zealand which they themselves do not recognise.[4]  Can we recognise, then, a national repression which is responsive to the dichotomy of public perception of an idyllic New Zealand, and the past transgressions of violence and brutalisation which occur so recently in the short history of the country?  Both Ian Conrich and Erin Mercer associate the land of New Zealand itself with primal nature and repression, sexual and violent desires which permeate from within society[5]  In her analysis of The Scarecrow Mercer epitomises this point, ‘[t]he body of water that lies in the heart of the town is a manifestation of the uncanny; a site where material previously buried beneath the town’s ordinary surface is released.’[6]  As I have previously explored, Sydney Bridge Upside Down provides a narrative that goes out of its way to conceal origin, however, here I argue that there is a broader process of encrypting at work in regards to nation, and in particular, the New Zealand small town community.  According to Conrich, small town New Zealand is ‘a site of sexual immorality, traumatic childhoods, and dark pasts,’[7] however, Ballantyne portrays a town which is unwilling to accept the threat from within. This can be seen in the community’s denial of Fat Norman’s claims that Sam Phelps is a danger to their children for the simple reason that he is a part of the community.  The outrage Mrs Kelly shows in response to his accusation is symptomatic of the intrinsic sense of denial that permeates within the community, and Fat Norman as the outsider becomes a force which threatens to reveal truths, whether real or imagined, that the community does not wish to face.  Similarly Mr Wiggins’ predatory behaviour is not acknowledged publicly as a threat to the peace of the community. In a way his aggressive sexuality provides a vital public service, allowing the local women to explore their own transgressive sexual desires without polluting the idyllic image of the small town.  As this series of communal denials accumulates, the effect produced can only be described as both a conscious and unconscious collective repression of the violence and sexual immorality which dwells at the heart of their society.  Caroline comes from the city, a place of degeneration and sexual corruption,[8] however Caroline’s promiscuity unearths the most violent and aggressively sexual desires of the small town community.  The townspeople think the murders are accidents, ‘all these accidents are giving the district a bad name.’[9]  The thought of an evil force dwelling within their community is unthinkable, a concept explored in The Scarecrow as the murderer is vanquished, but the predatory and malignant intent of the local community remains intact. As Mercer observes ‘[t]his version of New Zealand does not deny the potentially violent and uncontrollable nature of human desire and insists that The Scarecrow is not other at all, but […] is actually a part of ordinary life that can never be completely eradicated.[10]  In Ballantyne’s novel a similar perspective is invoked and pushed further as the killer is indeed a local adolescent.  This environment of local evil also finds a place in New Zealand societal and cultural fears resulting from the country’s mythologizing of small-town crime, urban legends generated by local horrors such as  ‘Minnie Dean, the Victorian baby farmer’ and Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme whose tale of matricide was adapted into the film Heavenly Creatures (1994).[11]

In reading Ballantyne’s novel in these terms of repression and concealment, it is necessary to invoke the question of the power of the collective conscience to repress, not only on the scale of the small town community, but also on that of nation. In her book A New Zealand Book of Beasts: Animals in Our Culture, History and Everyday Life, Annie Potts explores New Zealand as a country built on the brutalization of animals,[12] and as Kate DeGoldi states in her introduction to the 2010 edition of the novel, the emergence of refrigerated meat shipping transformed ‘the New Zealand colonist into a ‘systematic and calculating’ butcher’[13]  The abandonment and demolition of the slaughterhouse in the novel is representative of a society in the process of systematically repressing the brutally violent nature of its past.

Ballantyne’s novel uses repression to force an awareness of a crypt at the heart of the New Zealand novel. A cryptic space occupied by the repressed knowledge of violence and sexual transgression which is hidden by a conscious collective effort to embrace an idyllic impression of community and country.


Ballantyne, David, Sydney Bridge Upside Down, (Melbourne: The Text Publishing Company, 2010)

Conrich, Ian, ‘New Zealand Gothic’, A New Companion to the Gothic, ed. by David Punter, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2012) pp. 393-408

DeGoldi, Kate, ‘Introduction’, Sydney Bridge Upside Down, (Melbourne: The Text Publishing Company, 2010) pp. vii-xiii

Mercer, Erin, ‘‘The wolf bane is blooming again’: Gothic Desire in R. H. Morrieson’s The Scarecrow’, Journal of Writing and Writing Courses, vol. 20 (2) (Palmerston: Massey University, 2016) pp. 1-13

Potts, Annie, A New Zealand Book of Beasts: Animals in Our Culture, History and Everyday Life, (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2014)

Roberts, Heather, ‘Introduction’, The Butcher Shop, (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1981) pp. i-xx

[1] Conrich, p. 393

[2] Conrich, p. 393

[3] Roberts, H., ‘Introduction’, The Butcher Shop, (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1981) p. ii

[4] Mercer, E., ‘‘The wolf bane is blooming again’: Gothic Desire in R. H. Morrieson’s The Scarecrow’, Journal of Writing and Writing Courses, vol. 20 (2)

[5] Conrich, p. 395

[6] Mercer, p. 5

[7] Conrich, p. 396

[8] Ballantyne, p. 89

[9] Ballantyne, p. 227

[10] Mercer, p. 13

[11] Conrich, p. 399

[12] Potts, A., A New Zealand Book of Beasts: Animals in Our Culture, History and Everyday Life, (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2014)

[13] DeGoldi, K., ‘Introduction’, Sydney Bridge Upside Down, (Melbourne: The Text Publishing Company, 2010) vii


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