It’s an underrated pleasure to read a book and identify with it’s protagonist, to sit nestled inside their mind and language, and in the some of the best books – to love another character through them. Apirana Taylor’s Five Strings achieves this with two protagonists, Mack and Puti: We look into Puti’s ‘fish-bowl’ eyes from Mack’s perspective, and a moment later look back through them at the sun highlighting Mack’s own ‘jowly chops.’
Puti and Mack are both sickness beneficiaries and alcoholics. They live in a room together, and walk daily to the public loos to wash their dishes, and weekly to the pools to shower. They’re regulars at the One Way Up Tavern, where they’ve found their community, but between Mondays when they run out of money, and Wednesdays when they get paid, they’ve got no-one but each other.
Taylor makes affectionate use of language. Mack describes his circumstances as ‘Dickensian’, and Five Strings is full of bums, flops, pukus, and bastards. The book’s world is sensuous. It’s characters never have sex due to a mutual combination of apathy and fear, but a scene where Mack makes Puti a banana sandwich served (for this reader, at least) as a sufficient substitute:
He peeled off their jackets. He buttered four slices of bread with the thinnest skin of margarine, then placed each banana on top of a piece of bread. He crushed and spread the fruit with his knife taking care to ensure the black and white pulpy mass didn’t flow over the bread’s borders. He capped the two spread slices with another piece of bread…
He gave Puti her sandwich. She watched him build it with as much concern, care and concentration as he took in making it. She cupped the sandwich in her hands, like someone taking the holy bread for communion.
Five Strings is a uncomfortable study of the tender, painful interplay of power and care in long-term love. The couple look to each other for everything their society isn’t giving them and frequently come up short. They both claim to be burdened by the other’s dependence, but the reader senses that really Five Strings is about the need to be needed, and so it’s doubly poignant when they fail each other.
During the first two thirds of the novel everything that happens seems to have happened multiple times before. This is a sort of intimacy; we learn the pattern of the days and weeks their relationship is made of. But towards the end of the second third a reader might begin to wonder if another trip to the pub with Mack is necessary, when after all he’ll only get drunk, argue with the bartender, then philosophise to no-one about modern meaninglessness and the stupidity of the modern work week.
Sometimes Five Strings feels like a play that could go through just one more rehearsal. The sentences are often stilted, pulling the reader out of the minds of the characters and back into that of a person looking at a book. Often, too, the characterisation of minor characters feels stagey. Sometimes this a problem and sometimes it isn’t. Dolorous ‘a bearded transvestite’ and ‘Greta Garbage’ both read like caricatures, not characters, and the novel gains nothing by alienating us from them.
When the character in question is an authority figure, someone sitting at a remove from the story, the flatness is fun and in accordance with a sort of realism. When Puti’s anger management therapist arrives late to their meeting saying, ‘Don’t think I’m late. It’s all part of the new policy. Give the clients time to settle in. Time to relax and stretch out those thoughts,’ we can’t help but snort our derision. Even though Sandra’s character doesn’t seem quite realistic, the way the system she represents grates on Puti absolutely does.
Taylor’s irony is existential too. When Mack’s drunk and happy he thinks, ‘[there’s] nothing wrong with the world, and if there [is he’ll] fix it.’ Drugs and alcohol are the routine of Mack and Puti’s lives, every other priority is submerged under them. Such narratives are often deterministic and tautological – he needs alcohol because… he needs alcohol – but Five Strings has an intimate understanding of its characters in both their desperation to escape their addictions and their ecstasy in being subsumed in them. We see how drugs and alcohol can be both a choice and an inevitability at once.
Taylor has a sharp, dramatic sense of everyday practicalities and the way their difficulty is compounded by poverty, but Five Strings is also a story of love and ultimately of reclamation.
Reviewed by Annaleese Jochems
by Apirana Taylor
Published by Anahera Press