Lloyd Jones: Here at the End of the World We Learn to Dance
Here is another Jones book that is superbly well written and a joy to read but was only published outside New Zealand, after the success of Mr. Pip. It is a multi-generation, multinational love story with Jones (through the narrator, Lionel) recounting the two generations together, rather than chronologically. The story starts (chronologically, though this is not at the beginning of the book) in the early part of World War I in New Zealand. In the small village of Little River, Louise Cunningham has lost both her parents. The young men from the village are off to fight in the War. Most won’t return. However, there are two young men who are Quakers and won’t go. This causes some resentment and when their signatures are forged on call-up papers, they decide to flee. Louise shows them a cave where they can stay and she and another local man will help them. Meanwhile she meets a piano tuner called Schmidt and falls for him at once. However, his name causes problem and he too, accompanied by Louise, flees for the cave. At the cave, two of the men fall for Louise – Schmidt and one of the Quakers, Billy Pohl. To pass the time, the much-travelled Schmidt teaches Louise the tango and she takes to it. She dances briefly with the other boys but it is Schmidt to whom she is attracted and who is the dancer. But when he kisses her, he knows that he can no longer stay and walks away. When Louise becomes ill, the other two take her to hospital and turn themselves in.
When Billy is released from prison, he marries Louise. But Schmidt has written to her and they keep up a correspondence. He tells her that he wants to marry her but she hesitates, not wanting to hurt Billy. When Schmidt pushes her, not least because there is someone else, she is ready to go. When Billy finds out about her correspondence, he walks out, leaving her with enough money to get to Buenos Aires where Schmidt now lives. She arrives too late. He is already married and his wife is pregnant. But he still loves her and the pair carry on a lifetime’s affair, involving dancing and sex, while she works in his shop as the non-Spanish-speaking Mrs. Cunningham. Eventually she dies (falling down the stairs) and he visits her grave every week and, to his wife’s horror, when he dies, has himself buried next to her (as we learn at the beginning of the book).
Much of this is learned by Lionel from Rosa. Rosa is the granddaughter of Schmidt. She had been with her grandmother when she died. Her parents had migrated to New Zealand and first her father and now she herself run a restaurant, La Chacra. Lionel works as a dishwasher there, while he is studying. He gradually becomes friendly with Rosa (though he is eighteen years younger than her). The friendship starts with dancing as Rosa teaches him the tango. He even has private lessons. Once her husband, Ivan, leaves (no-one knows why) the relationship turns to sex. She meets his parents, a couple running a failing farm. But, eventually, Ivan returns.
It really is a beautiful novel, matching the two love stories, Louise and Schmidt on the one hand and Rosa and Lionel on the other, with both the family element and the tango linking the two. Jones clearly shows the tango as not just a dance but as a way of life and a way of love. It is the tango that brings each couple together. (The epigraph is a quote from Juan Carlos Copes and reads The tango is man and woman in search of each other. It is a search for an embrace, a way to be together.) Jones clearly knows his tango but, more importantly, he clearly knows his relationships and it is only a surprise that it has taken so long for this novel to make it to Britain and the US.
First published 2002 by Penguin