At Hiruharama was one of Penelope Fitzgerald’s last efforts. Told largely in flashback by the grandson of the story’s main protagonist, both named “Tanner,” it begins with the “explanation” for its telling:
“Mr. Tanner was anxious to explain how it was that he had a lawyer in the family, so that when they all decided to sell up and quit New Zealand there had been someone they could absolutely trust with the legal business. That meant he had to say something about his grandfather . . ."
Thus begins the story of Tanner, his wife Kitty, Brinkman, their closest neighbor in the exceedingly remote, rural communities of New Zealand, and the doctor to whom Tanner goes with news of Kitty’s pregnancy. Fitzgerald’s narrative tells of how Tanner and Kitty met (in a dry goods store), about how they move to an isolated location (Hiruharama), about Brinkman, whose twice a year visits assume a peculiar importance to Brinkman insofar as he comes to count on the two meals that accompany the two visits, about how Tanner, mistakenly thinking the afterbirth following the delivery of his daughter is now medical waste and proceeds to discard it, only for the doctor to subsequently discover the “waste” actually contains another baby, and about how the second baby, also a daughter, would grow up to be a lawyer.
Fitzgerald’s writing style in At Hiruharama can best be described as informal or “realistic” in the sense that Huckleberry Finn’s narration reflects his character’s status in life. There is also a bit of surrealism in Fitzgerald’s writing, as in the following exchange between Tanner and the doctor when the former visits the latter to inquire about medical statistics specific to childbirth:
“‘Do you mean the death statistics? the doctor asked.
‘They’ll do just as well,’ said Tanner.
[The doctor:] ‘No one dies here except from drink or drowning.’”
And, again, when the doctor, concerned about Kitty’s having to give birth in such a remote location far removed from any medical facilities and about Tanner’s ability to take care of the home, inquires about any friends or neighbors who could help out, Tanner responds with Brinkman’s name, to which the doctor inquires:
“‘And he has a wife?’
‘No, he hasn’t, that what he complains about. You couldn’t ask a woman to live out there.’
‘You can ask a woman to live anywhere,’ said the doctor. ‘He’s a crank, I dare say.’
‘He’s a dreamer,’ Tanner replied. ‘I should term Brinkman a dreamer.’”
That Tanner buys two pigeons so that he can contact the doctor when Kitty goes into labor is also revealing of Fitzgerald’s sense of humor and empathy for the poorer elements of society, having lived much of her adult life in a state of financial deprivation. At Hiruharama has no more plot than this. It is a story, plain and simple. It ends with Brinkman refusing to leave the Tanner home until he is fed, despite the sudden chaos that ensues when Kitty goes into labor. About the discovery that a second daughter was born, Brinkman can only sit and reflect. As the narrator describes the scene,
“All the time Brinkman continued to sit there by the table and smoke his pipe. Two more women born into the world! It must have seemed to him that if this sort of thing went on there should be a good chance, in the end, for him to acquire one for himself. Meanwhile, they would have to serve dinner sometime.”