Book Review: All Our Secrets, by Jennifer Lane

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_all_our_secretsI began this novel with no expectations at all beyond the blurb, which made it sound dark and murderous, something along the lines of your usual crime fiction novel. And yes it would suit those who enjoy that type of read: but it is much much more than this. This is your ultimate immersive summer read.

Our 11-year-old narrator Gracie is the eldest in her family, which comprises of her mum, occasionally her promiscuous dad, and her extremely Catholic Grandma Bett; plus Elijah, and the 3-year-old twins Lucky and Grub. She and Elijah have a secret spot that they hide in while their Mum & Dad fight (usually about his indiscretions), but she is quietly proud to be his daughter. He is, to her eyes, the best-looking man in Coongahoola. Unfortunately, many other women agree.

‘At approximately three thirty in the afternoon, while walking on the banks of the Bagooli River, Martha Mills alleges she saw a vision of the Virgin Mary.’

The Bagooli River was not somebody anybody from the town went. ‘Not after the River Picnic. Not after Stu Bailey’s wife drowned in it, and whatever else happened that night.’ But one week after the vision, the Believers arrive. There are 500 of them, to camp beside the river and to worship the Virgin Mary under the tutelage of the self-named Saint Bede.

And then the murders began. ‘From every telegraph on Main Road, Nigel’s face looked down at up. His brown hair was bleached by the November sun and the sticky-taped ‘missing’ posters were crinkled and curling.’ Nigel is the beginning of a spate of murders centred on the River Children – the group of kids born 9 months after the River Picnic, many of whom don’t resemble their purported fathers.

Gracie’s brother Elijah is a River Child.

Author Jennifer Lane has drawn the small town of Coongahoola expertly. Martha Mills (who saw the vision) was there for Gracie’s birth when her mother’s waters broke at the supermarket at which Martha worked. Gracie’s godmother the nosy Mrs Ludlum was also there, and the rest of the characters making up the small town are all brilliantly drawn, with complexity where it is warranted, through a child’s eyes. Grandma Bett is another key character – as the main caregiver when times are tough, she is Gracie’s hero, albeit with a bit more praying than Gracie would like to do.

‘Grandma Bett was always talking to God – how could he hear what Mum was saying at the same time? And what about everyone else in the world? How could he hear them all at once?’

The complexities of religious belief is an ongoing thread in the book, thanks to the Believers and their inevitable ideological clash with every other church group in town. And while Gracie was never too concerned about being unpopular; thanks to her mum’s relationship with the Believer church, she has to endure cruel bullying. But this is no ‘woe is me’ tale – Gracie is emotionally smarter than that.

Lane’s writing is fabulous for that of a first-time author. The book felt well-edited and polished (as you would expectof a book edited by the wonderful Penelope Todd), and the writing is descriptive and immersive. The moments where Gracie retreats into her own thoughts are managed without dropping the pace of the story, and there is not one chapter that you finish thinking ‘that’s enough for now.’

One of the questions I went into this book was whether it had potential to be a cross-over title – from YA to adult and back again. I think it does. The murders are handled in a clean way, no Stephen King gore to be seen (though the way in which the naive narrator is used reminds me a little of a King novel). The voice is authentically young – you never feel as though an adult’s thoughts are going through a child’s head. But it remains interesting and fascinating.

I’d highly recommend this as a summer read for age 13+. It’s a pleasure to be part of Gracie’s world, dysfunctional though it may be.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

All Our Secrets
by Jennifer Lane
Published by Rosa Mira Books
ISBN 9780994132215

 

 

 

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Book Review: False River, by Paula Morris

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_false_riverThis is a very sophisticated collection of short stories, which sit comfortably together. While many have been previously published in magazines, or read on radio, bringing them together allows the reader to appreciate the true depth of Morris’s writing. The title story, False River was a finalist in the 2015 Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award in the UK, and Morris is no stranger to awards for her writing.

I am not a regular reader of short stories as once I have sorted out characters and setting, I prefer to settle in for a long read. But this collection allowed me to enter each world quickly and with minimal fuss as I became engrossed by the stories. It was a revelation.

Morris knows her settings. Be it New Orleans, Mexico or Latvia, we are quickly immersed in a familiar world where small details add depth. Some stories deal with relationships such as the delightful story Isn’t It. Here we have the Auckland housing crisis meeting family mourning. The meeting of these two worlds is beautifully portrayed.

A well-chosen black and white photo follows some stories. I like the inclusion of visual art within the written text as it adds another layer for the reader. However, I was a little disappointed at the cover of the collection. The dark blue, understated cover did not live up to the quality of the stories and artwork within the  book. Even the endpapers were more creative.

I really enjoyed this collection: it seems, after a thirty-year standoff with short stories, Paula Morris has lured me back. I would pick the book up to read one story, and then sneak another too. Of course, this meant I was running late!

This is the perfect summer read. A sleep, a swim or even a small wine could follow each story.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

False River
by Paula Morris
Published by Vintage
ISBN 9780143771630

 

 

Book Review: Sodden Downstream, by Brannavan Gnanalingam

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_sodden_downstreamSodden Downstream has one of the best high concepts of any recent New Zealand novel; a major storm hits Wellington and all public transport has stopped, but Sita, a Tamil refugee from Sri Lanka, has to get from the Hutt Valley to the city or risk losing her zero-hour cleaning job. Along the way, she’s helped by a varied cast of economically struggling characters also caught in the storm.

The novel’s a tonal departure for author Brannavan Gnanalingam, whose previous books have been more comic, and it’s a mixed success as a genre experiment. I liked the crisp prose style, but it’s often needlessly explicit, as if unconfident it’s getting the point across. There’s a good paragraph about excessive WINZ scrutiny spoiled by the blandly didactic sentence ‘Struggling people weren’t allowed to make mistakes’, a point the rest of the paragraph was making perfectly well.

Sodden Downstream’s narration is limited to Sita’s perspective, but the interior monologue we get doesn’t always gel with the actions of the character. Satirist Gnanalingam wants Sita insightful, while the plot needs her naïve; sometimes she’ll express confusion with New Zealand social norms, then a few sentences later make a wry, knowing observation about them. Obviously there’s nothing wrong with her being a smart, funny character, but her inconsistent cultural vocabulary leads to moments where you’re sharply aware you’re not listening to a barely-getting-by refugee but a middle-class Wellington intellectual. At one point she says her cooking wasn’t going to get a Michelin star, which I thought was one of those bits of cultural knowledge limited to people who had to wear ties to high school; I’d assumed a restaurant having one star meant it was rubbish and had to look it up.

Another voice issue is that we just don’t feel the urgency the plot needs. The mock-epic needs the same amount of tension as a straight quest narrative, especially when the tone’s as serious as it’s meant to be here, but Sodden Downstream feels almost casual when it’s meant to be pressing. There’s a very effective punctuationless chapter near the end where Sita flashes back to the civil war, but prior to this we don’t get that much of a sense of the strain she’s under.

This might be by design; what’s the trial she’s facing now compared to those she’s faced in the past? But it creates a major technical problem – if the novel’s about how bad things are now, and also how much worse they were before, it devalues the current struggle from a narrative perspective, which is the exact opposite of the book’s political intent.

Sita doesn’t set out on her quest until about 50 pages into the 180 page novel, a structural choice I can’t see the logic behind. This is a novel with a clean, stark premise, but it’s bogged down with a conventional expository first act instead of starting the story with the clock ticking. Because the details of Sita’s stressful home life are kept separate from the main action, we nearly forget about them once things are moving, and we don’t feel the connection between her life and her journey – we don’t have a strong enough sense of what she’s fighting for. If these details were spread throughout the story they’d cement that connection, and they’d be more interesting because we’re already identifying with her struggle. It’d help with the voice problems too – wouldn’t a woman in Sita’s situation be more likely to fret about the home life she might lose than strangers’ micro-aggressive questions about cricket?

The other characters are types, but generally well-drawn ones. Gnanalingam, a Lower Hutt native, has a great feeling for the area’s personalities and a precise ear for its idiom; a scene where Sita meets a just-released prisoner is especially good. The baddies are handled with less grace, though. They’re cheap targets, for one; cops, SUV drivers, WINZ. They’re painted a little more sympathetically than the monster in Alien, a little less sympathetically than Jew Süss. They’re moustache-twirling bastards, devoid of charisma, uninterested in even trying to conceal their essential bastardry. When Sita’s boss calls her, he uses the word ‘odium’ five times in two pages as a power move and calls her by a hated nickname every other sentence.

Would someone really act like this? I conceded they might, even that the specificity of ‘odium’ suggests it might be taken straight from a real-life anecdote. But realist fiction is a technical trick, a genre with a set of arbitrary conventions; it doesn’t matter if something is real, it has to feel real. Probably the rich are as awful as Gnanalingam makes out, but real life’s allowed to be cartoonish, while realist fiction readers demand complexity even when it’s phony. Especially bad is a scene where a red-faced, tight-uniformed cop bullies a troubled teenager, where he’s so blandly, typically wicked that I felt perversely compelled to take his side, if only to liven up the scene’s tired dynamic. Sure, it’s also a tired, familiar dynamic in real life, but we can at least ask fiction to inject a little specificity into everyday tyranny, right?

The flaws mean that this isn’t as strongly-worded a social critique as you might expect from the premise. Since only consensus villains are called out, readers are unlikely to feel their beliefs have been challenged. The non-villains are often casually, clumsily offensive, but are otherwise lovely, full of compassion and local colour and bonhomie, and there’s a slightly uncomfortable amount of praise of New Zealand from Sita. Chalk this up to cultural cringe, maybe – I was also pretty uneasy with the novel’s extensive use of the word ‘Kiwi’, which I associate mostly with advertisements – but it feels like calculated punch-pulling, as if Gnanalingam’s pre-empting an attack on his patriotic credentials from the Plunket-Hoskings-Garner editorial triangle.

Why can’t Sita be resentful? Why does she have to be the kind of noble, staunchly suffering refugee the Herald might write a fluff piece on? When you write a perfectly virtuous character who’s defined by their social type (and Sita certainly is), you’re playing into the idea that those people have to prove something, that the validity of their suffering is tied to them being better-than-average human beings. Since someone’s personal morality has nothing at all to do with the injustice of their social position, the really radical thing to do would be to write about a refugee who’s a total prick and demonstrate its complete irrelevance to the ethics of refugee policy. It might make for a better yarn, too.

Sodden Downstream is an alright novel with the components of a really good one, but they’ve been carelessly assembled. It could’ve been vastly improved with another serious edit, both for the narrative issues and technical ones – there’s a grammar error in the dedication, two sentences into the book, and more follow. Gnanalingam, a lawyer as well as a prolific essayist, critic and a five-time novelist in six years, feels like he writes as fast as he presumably must, and this work doesn’t seem to have gotten the attention it needed.

I like prolific writers because, as a rule, they’re weirder – more obsessive, less rigorously self-censored, closer to the lumpy, eerie source and further from good taste. But Sodden Downstream isn’t idiosyncratic enough to justify its very fixable issues; it’s not especially formally daring, or politically controversial, or boldly sentimental, or angry, or exuberant. It’s tasteful, and happy to exist in a familiar political conversation rather than push it anywhere. It’d be ideal for a year 11 English class; it’s got humanism and swearing.

Reviewed by Joseph Barbon

Sodden Downstream
by Brannavan Gnanalingam
Published by Lawrence & Gibson
ISBN 9780473410292

Book Review: Baby, by Annaleese Jochems

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_hires_babyWow, what an amazing talent this young woman is. At all of 23 years of age, there is an urgency and energy to Annaleese Jochems’ writing. Her insight into how social media, celebrity culture, the culture of ‘me’, and how the resultant obsession with self has manipulated her generation of young people is spectacular. The result is a monster of a young woman, the 21-year-old Cynthia, whose life and existence is completely dominated by her dangerously self absorbed, meaningless and boring existence.

This novel is well and truly a modern urban cautionary fable, about that privileged and over indulged generation us oldies like to call entitled, how their perception of self is so out of whack, and the consequences when it all goes wrong. A total nut job. I have already admitted I am the wrong demographic for this novel, even though I get what is going on (I think), but my 20 year old daughter, clearly of the same demographic as Cynthia and the author thought the book way too weird to continue reading. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it is weird, but it is certainly disturbing.

Cynthia has a life of nothing. She has been to university, although it is not clear if she completed her degree or dropped out. She has no job, lives at her father’s home, a man who appears to be both physically and emotionally absent, but he does have a great bank balance, spends all her time on her phone, watching movies, playing with her dog Snot-head (who calls their dog such a name?) and doing yoga. Anahera is the yoga instructor, a slightly older woman, with whom Cynthia becomes obsessed. When Anahera turns up on her doorstep claiming she has left her husband, the madness begins. After raiding her father’s bank account, they drive off to Paihia, where absurdly, they purchase a boat called Baby, living on it just off the shore of Paihia beach.

Talk about cabin fever. As the days pass, and with no fixed plan of action, they begin to run out of money, Snot-head does not take well to marine life, Anahera remains disturbingly elusive, wanting to spend all her time swimming from the boat to an off shore island. Their random existence leads them to random encounters with others, none of which end well, Cynthia increasingly out of touch with reality, out of control with her emotions and actions.

So a bizarre plot with not a single likeable or even relatable character. All using each other for their own ends, the lines of communication and connection are constantly twisted and warped. The novel is narrated entirely from Cynthia’s self-absorbed perspective, so cleverly we get to find out very little about the other characters and what is going on in their minds with the strange set up they find themselves in.

I wouldn’t say I enjoyed this book, some very strange and disturbing stuff goes on. But as an insight into the over stimulated mind of a young person it is extraordinary. As is the quality of the writing, the low level tension held through out, beginning with the first line  “Cynthia can understand how Anahera feels just by looking at her body.”, to the last paragraph  “For now, she shifts her head from one side to the other, resting it. Time passes and the trees are silent. A small winged bug lands on her wrist then flies away. She doesn’t notice.” This is an amazing new voice in NZ writing, we should treasure and nurture her, she will go onto great things.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

Baby
by Annaleese Jochems
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561667

Book Review: Nothing Bad Happens Here, by Nikki Crutchley

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_nothing_bad_happens_here.jpgSet in the small Coromandel town of Castle Bay, life for everyone is disrupted when the body of a tourist who went missing several months earlier is found in a shallow grave.

Journalist Miller Hatcher is sent to cover the murder, but is she up to the task? As with most journalists in crime novels, Miller is troubled; she’s trying to get over a broken relationship and the death of her mother, she drinks too much, and she pulls her hair out when stressed.

An out of town detective is brought in to run the investigation, which doesn’t impress the local police sergeant, Kahu Parata. He feels pushed out, and upset at the ghoulish interest the murder has attracted to his town.

The plot of this book feels like a script for one of those crime shows that crosses over into another show’s territory – in this case a mix of Brokenwood Mysteries, 800 Words and Criminal Minds. I found some of it way too far-fetched to believe in a New Zealand setting.

There are several red herrings and Miller – who is staying in a healing retreat run by an aging hippy as the town’s accommodation is booked out – is given an anonymous tip that leads to another death. When one of the fellow retreat guests goes missing, Miller realises the murderer could be still in town.

As an awful lot gets conveniently tied up in the final few chapters, it’s hard to say much about this book without giving the ending away. It was a fast read, but ultimately not a satisfying one. A word of advice too, be careful where you read this book. When a drop of water from my cold drink landed on the page, the ink ran.

Reviewed by Faye Lougher

Nothing Bad Happens Here
by Nikki Crutchley
Published by Oak House Press
ISBN 9780473404505

Book Review: Johnson, by Dean Parker

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_johnsonWhen I was at school we were given a book to read for UE English. It was John Mulgan’s Man Alone. Published in 1939 and regarded as a classic of Kiwi Literature it was the story of Johnson, an ex-soldier who escapes the devastation of the Great Depression back in the Home Country by emigrating to New Zealand to start a new life. Arriving first in Auckland, he becomes entangled in the labour and watersider riots that are prevalent at the time. At one of these he is accused of assaulting a policeman and so he flees south to the central North Island to work as a farm hand. Whilst there he has an affair with his boss’s wife. Then there’s the accidental killing of his employer which turns him into a fugitive, on the run across rough hill country. By the novel’s end, he is contemplating leaving the country to fight in the Spanish Civil War.

For us students, we were taught to contemplate how the economic state of the country was juxtaposed with the antihero mythology of the novel. Johnson, with his existential presence, has no close bonds to others and is determined to live by his own means. It’s the birth of the great Kiwi Bloke. The strong silent type who goes bush at the first sign of trouble. He doesn’t vote, he runs away. He’s John Wayne ‘cowboy’ of Aotearoa. A man who answered only to God and himself. You see this archetypical character emerge again and again – most recently in Sam Neil’s portray the cantankerous ‘Hec’ in Taika Waititi’s Hunt For The Wilderpeople – itself, an interpretation of writings of another great bushman, Barry Crump. And there’s plenty more – Roger Donaldson has made a career out of these men – remember Vigil, Sleeping Dogs? Incidentally, the prominence of the novel and the nature of Johnson have led to the term “Man Alone”, which became a description of a particular archetype in New Zealand and Australian fiction. I believe Mulgan actually took the title for his novel from a line in Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not.

Still, what happened after Johnson left for Spain? Playwright Dean Parker attempts to fill us in. Our story begins with the cover, Lois White’s wonderful painting War Makers, rendered as almost ceramic figures, like the famous Lladró – strong, beautiful but ultimately fragile and brittle. Johnson is like one of those figurines. But he’s also a warrior. He fights the bloody battles in Spain, brawls with facists in London at the start of WWII, serves in Greece and along the way meets the cop that pursued him back in New Zealand in the high country. He’s also a guerrilla for a time in Crete, where he comes across an exhausted and deluded Kiwi officer called … Mulgan. It’s almost too much. How can he be part of so much history.

Something calls him back here and upon returning to our shores after the war he takes up his life of hard living. He mixes again with his old crowd and eventually joins the Communist Party. It is now 1951 and New Zealand is gripped by post-war class politics. The embers that will eventually fuel CK Stead’s Smith’s Dream have started warming. It’s the Labour movement versus the Employer and the Industrialists. It’s year of the great Watersider’s Lockout. More history to cram in.

It’s literally one event after the other. At times, it’s almost unbelievable how much living one man can do. But this is apparently typical of Parker’s writing. He enjoys putting his procrastinators right in the middle of a staunch political and historical narrative of class warfare. And there are plenty of regulars drifting in and out of each scene. Like Hillary, a green eyed left-wing lass who seems to pop up everywhere. Especially all over Europe. This all seems just a little too unlikely. I’ll admit, it’s a bit of a challenge but if you suspend your belief and your relish the ways she finds a way finally manages to tame Johnson then you can see this through to the natural conclusion. The Man Alone no longer, as it were. This is not so much in the typical romantic fashion but as a long-term calming interest. How that happens ends up being just a little bit fantastical but don’t let that put you off. Perhaps this is just a comment on the way we all grow and mature. We all have our wildness and as we age, we need security and chose to settle.

It’s always a bit of challenge when a writer of one particular takes on a different genre and platform. As a playwright Parker is familiar with the power of economical, clipped writing, with no additional waffle or floral prose to fill the pages. I appreciated this as it fits almost seamlessly with Mulgan’s original material. I also hope that Parker might one day consider this as a play. It would be a great accompaniment to Mason’s End of The Golden Weather. While that was a positive and nostalgic reflection of mid-century New Zealand, Johnson is more of a darker, proletariat interpretation. Almost like the other side of the coin. But both have a similar style, feel and language.

Okay, so it’s loaded with plenty of coincidences, the cinematic and theatrical implications are large. But best, it does justice and perhaps enhances that original old craggy story of Mulgan’s. It was a little odd going back to a book I was effectively forced to read. I wouldn’t have chosen it back in my school days. Mainly because, despite the potential of the plot, the writing was just too dry and tedious for a 16-year-old. Parker must have realised this and makes sure that his book rockets along. Part of the reason he can get away with smoke and mirrors so convincingly.

Reviewed by Tim Gruar

Johnson
by Dean Parker
Published bt Steele Roberts Aotearoa
ISBN 9780947493530

Book Review: Salt Picnic, by Patrick Evans

cv_salt_picnicAvailable in bookshops nationwide.

Patrick Evans’ Salt Picnic is set in Ibiza in 1956, where young writer Iola has just arrived expecting Roman Holiday-esque adventure, naïve to the political realities of Francoist Spain. The novel’s divided into four parts: Iola arrives in Ibiza and makes observations, Iola meets an excitable American photographer, Iola meets a prim English doctor, and Iola goes with the doctor to a nearby salt island for the titular picnic. Spare-plotted and with few English speaking characters, it’s a difficult book to classify; we could maybe think of it as an experiment in writing an international political thriller with the strictly personal stakes of the bildungsroman and the densely descriptive, self-consciously sensual prose of the contemporary literary novel.

Your enjoyment of Salt Picnic will depend on whether you prefer loveliness to energy. The novel’s unmistakably the work of a long-term industry insider, with the associated upsides and downsides; the prose is uniformly handsome at the expense of vitality, and its exotic setting shows warning signs of an author settling into that frustrating things-I-saw-on-holiday genre favoured by writers who reckon they no long have to prove anything. Evans has been an outspoken critic of the IIML-to-VUP literary machine, but his own writing has developed the same safe, workshopped quality, playing defence rather than offence – there’s no mistakes. For a fan of the clumsy energy of literary overreachers, it’s as dull as a Mayweather fight.

It’s a shame to see such stateliness from an author like Evans. In his nonfiction work, he’s one of the country’s most charming writers in a discipline not always renowned for charm – you’re unlikely to find another Postcolonial Literature primer that could plausibly be described as Shavian. Look up any article he’s written or any interview and his wit strikes you right away, but while his instinctive feel for the sentence carries over to the novel, the cutting insight doesn’t. Evans’ Gifted, though frustrating for similar reasons, at least found in Frank Sargeson a protagonist allowed to be as clever as his author, while Salt Picnic’s Iola is too naïve and ever-more-bewildered to think anything remotely pointed. Consequently, this is a pretty humourless book; the American’s a little goofy and the Englishman’s bad at crosswords, but otherwise the tone is so sober you’d never guess that a few decades ago Evans was writing comic novels about the bawdy misadventures of a hapless and horny underpants salesman.

Evans has said Salt Picnic is the third in a trilogy of novels inspired by Janet Frame, drawing on her 1956 trip to Ibiza, but that Iola is not intended to resemble Frame. This might be a bluff to avoid once again incurring the wrath of the notoriously combative Frame estate, but Iola is so indistinct a character that it’s difficult to say. There’s been some controversy over whether Evans considers Frame to have had a genuine psychological condition; I wondered if Iola’s extreme passiveness and naiveté is meant to suggest this before considering that it isn’t ideal if you can’t tell whether a writer’s depicting a radically alien schizoid or autistic perspective or if the character’s just boring.

Assuming neurotypicality, Iola’s naiveté about personal, political and sexual matters stretches credibility even for a young woman in the 1950s. She’s written like a sheltered fifteen-year-old despite presumably being an adult – her age is unclear, though she’s been travelling Europe alone for some time before coming to Ibiza. Passive point-of-view characters are a literary standby, but we’re presumably meant to heavily invest in her character given the intimate scale of the story and if we don’t, the story’s revelations fall flat, because they’re meaningful revelations to her and not to us. Plus she’s alone for huge chunks of the book – picture The Great Gatsby with another 30,000 words of Nick Carraway pottering about West Egg looking at old buildings and spying on his neighbours.

I struggled with the novel’s elliptical style, often having no idea what a scene was about thematically and sometimes literally. Evans likes having bashful-monologued Iola refer modestly to ‘that’ without telling us what it is, and I often didn’t know. There are key plot points I’m still unclear on – halfway through the novel Iola seems to be pregnant, but I don’t remember this being mentioned again after a scene where her lover insists she can’t be pregnant. Was he right? Surely Evans would’ve resolved this somehow, but I didn’t pick up on it, don’t remember it, and can’t find it scanning through the book. C.K. Stead confessed to not understanding a number of crucial plot points in his review of Evans’ previous book, The Back of His Head, so I’m not alone here. It’s possible this is an immensely rewarding book if you really put the time in, but I felt no organic impulse to; by the time the novel ended with Iola telling the Englishman she had something to confess, I no longer cared that I didn’t know what that was.

This ambiguity gives the book a lot of thematic leeway. You can’t be sure if a point’s banal or if you’re unperceptive. If the blurb didn’t tell me Salt Picnic was “about mistranslation, fantasy and the historical echoes of ideology”, I would assume I’d missed the thrust of the novel completely. I still don’t think I really get it – Iola meets a fascist, and he’s a right bastard, and she finds out about what happened during the Spanish Civil War. Is this it? I have no idea. If the point of the book is a naïve character’s introduction to the realities of the war – and in a closing note Evans references the lack of real popular awareness about wartime atrocities prior to the 1960s, so this might be it – it doesn’t land, since we already know about these things. Presumably there’s more to it than I picked up on, but the style reflects a reader-adversarial understanding of subtext: if you have to work harder to understand something, you’ll consider it more valuable and profound.

Salt Picnic is a fantastic objet d’art – it’s got a great cover and a great title and if you open it to a random page you’ll be impressed. It’s handsome, admirable, and static. There’s definitely an audience for this book, but it’ll likely leave readers who can’t supply their own engine of interest cold. I’d recommend Salt Picnic for New Zealand fiction completionists, prose aficionados, and those who find their chief literary pleasure in the detective-work of meaning; late Henry James fans might love it.

Reviewed by Joseph Barbon

Salt Picnic
by Patrick Evans
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561698