A Briefcase, Two Pies, and a Penthouse, by Brannavan Gnanalingam

Available at selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_a_briefcase_two_pies_and_a_penthouseIt’s Rachel’s first day at her new job at the central security agency, the New Zealand Alarm and Response Ministry; a job she seems to have landed almost by accident, there being few other long-term contracts in the public sector. Her first task is to investigate the daily activities of a suspected terrorist, whose main “crime” seems to be having a foreign name and visiting the Middle East.

This is the GCSB meets Yes Minister or Gliding On (for those of a certain age who remember those TV shows). Rachel spends much of her time carefully navigating office politics and acronyms, sidestepping lascivious colleagues, and fake-laughing at racist, sexist, homophobic boys’ club banter.

Anyone who has worked in an office environment will find some cringingly familiar and humorous moments in Gnanalingam’s portrayal of bureaucracy gone mad. I laughed out loud at a work lunch scene in which an aggressive meat-eater thoughtlessly and carelessly ate the quiche intended for the office vegetarians, while another took two chicken drumsticks claiming to be eating the vegetarian’s share. There are many such comical scenes which elicit a wry smile and a knowing grimace.

Gnanalingam writes on a strictly “need to know” basis. His prose is sparse with little in the way of description. I’m not a writer myself but I’m aware of a writing maxim that the words should “show, not tell” so as to allow the reader to experience the scene through senses and emotions rather than through the author’s explicit description. Gnanalingam neither shows, nor tells. He leaves his reader to fill in the blanks with his or her own imagination. For example, we never learn much about Rachel’s physical appearance beyond her having hair long enough to be tied into a ponytail. (Something of a dangerous hairstyle in Kiwi political circles, of course.) But this brevity keeps the book rattling along at a decent pace with a focus on the plot.

I desperately hope that A Briefcase is pure fiction and that Gnanalingam is a writer with a fantastic sense of humour, otherwise I despair for the state of our country’s spy agencies. This is a wickedly clever and very contemporary read from a promising Kiwi author. My only complaint is that it was over too quickly.

Review by Tiffany Matsis

A Briefcase, Two Pies, and a Penthouse
by Brannavan Gnanalingam
Published by Lawrence & Gibson

Book review: Credit in the Straight World, by Brannavan Gnanalingam

cv_credit_in_the_straight_worldAvailable at selected bookstores nationwide.

This novel starts promisingly. Written in first person, its narrator George Tolland describes himself as “born deaf, partially blind, and I suppose mute, all of which was due to plain bad luck if you believe in luck, and syphilis if you don’t”. The voice is sassy, engaging, skeptical, and clear, what’s more — none of this ‘every character sounds the same’ business that you might find in another novel. Soon, we are introduced to George’s brother, Frank Tolland, and their town, a make-believe (and yet all too believable) Canterbury community called Manchester. All sketched out in quick, wry strokes, Gnanalingam’s characterization of the history and character of Manchester is absorbing, and the satirical tone of the novel is set as we enter the  the Tollands’ worlds and indeed, town.

As the narrative sweeps through the twentieth century, and the Tollands’ family history in Manchester – heading towards its final culmination in Frank Tolland’s immense, Allan-Hubbard-like success and his similarly Hubbard-like downfall, – we are treated to the same clear-cut characterization, satirical humour and descriptions of small town, close-minded life that we encountered in the Prologue. Pauline, Frank’s wife, was a character who always piqued my interest whenever she appeared, given her particular brand of potty-mouthed, passive-aggressive subversion of her husband. And George himself proved to be good company—he’s a brilliant person, well read, sarcastic and relatable.

As I said, this novel starts promisingly, and it certainly has a lot of the elements that make up a good novel. Why then did it not quite hit the spot? Ultimately, I think it’s a question of variety. The abiding impression I got from this book was one of a river streaming past with very little change in speed or pace, direction or intensity. This feeling was probably compounded by Gnanalingam’s extremely long sentences. Though it’s clear that this is an expression of George’s character (George explicitly says, “I would much rather have people read me writing free and flowing sentences”), the preponderance of these kinds of sentences definitely contributed to the feeling of sameness, and the sheer length of some of the sentences made these sentences sometimes hard to follow.

In terms of pace, however, this does change as we near the climax, and I began to engage with the characters in a different way—for example, I began to wonder how George had been so incapable of seeing Frank’s foibles, and this injected a nice note of doubt into the narrative. But overall the stream of this novel stayed too much the same. Nevertheless, this novel still deserves to be read and bought, for its wonderful characterisation and sly tone.

Reviewed by Feby Idrus

Credit in the Straight World
by Brannavan Gnanalingam
Published by Lawrence and Gibson Publishing Collective