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For those of us like myself and Brannavan Gnanalingam, who adore the nooks and crannies of history and have found Paris too lacklustre, instead hosting a city of loneliness, You Should Have Come Here When You Were Not Here will be a story to relate to and sympathise with. It tells the lonely tale of Veronica, a thirty-something asexual female journalist from New Zealand who travels to Paris late as a freelance journalist only to find the city indifferent to and from her.
Veronica is a lonesome (although not lonely) and apathetic character whose disdain for adhering to mainstream activities takes the story to obtuse and more interesting experiences of the lovers’ city. Veronica’s story depicts some of Paris’ least commendable areas, people, and tendencies, and is studded with historical footnotes, often expertly woven as mysterious characters drawn from Paris’ long and intricate history, moonlighting almost as figments of Veronica’s unconventional imagination. Gnanalingam has his own unique flair, and it is his creative storytelling – raw and economical, painting beautifully truthful pictures – that most draws the reader in. Though I would not recommend it to the rose-tinted Paris-virgin (for fear of killing romantic enthusiasm), those who have experienced Paris enough to both love and lament the elegant city will find the writing sufficiently quirky and entertaining, and the tale best left to permeate.
Gnanalingam set out to write a more austere account of Paris, to balance out the city’s excessive amorous embellishments in popular culture. Sometimes I think people say they loved Paris simply because it is pas acceptable to say one didn’t find it to his liking. You Should Have Come Here When You Were Not Here dares to defy the rose-tinted glasses and reveals the reality of Paris: sometimes this is glamorous and elegant, but more often it depicts exactly what Gnanalingam aimed for: “a segregated, austere, and above all, disorientating place.”
Despite the intelligent charm of Gnanalingam’s writing and his honest depictions of Paris, one cannot help but feel frustrated by the absolute inaction and apathy of Veronica, who, having spent ten years managing to get to Europe, now spends months in Paris without making any proper friends or money or accomplishments. Veronica actively avoids the main sites of Paris with a sort of hipster high-brow, while managing to achieve little else anyway. Veronica is clearly most comfortable on her own, but her lack of revered relationships with anybody in the city – even family and friends from home – is difficult to swallow, especially given the lack of anything else of substance in her Parisian life. If Veronica is surprised at Paris’ indifference to her, she does little to demonstrate that shock, and nor does she adapt or try to change it.
The finale of a quaint and delicately-woven story either mars or saves it: the twist is stomach churning and dégoûtable, but essentially shock lifts the story and leaves the reader turning the tale over on your tongue and in your mind. You Should Have Come Here When You Were Not Here is a lonely tale but Gnanalingam’s artistic writing will keep you turning pages and the book will transpire a heavy sense of contemplativeness. In a good way.
Review by Abbie Treloar
You should have come when you were not here
by Brannavan Gnanalingam
Published by Lawrence & Gibson Publishing collective