Sodden 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
by Brannavan Gnanalingam
Published by Lawrence & Gibson