Sidewinder as demon, Bernie Steeds

Sidewinder
Alistair Campbell,
Reed Books, Auckland, 1991, $24.95

Readers first meet Sidewinder about half way through Alistair Campbell’s 1989 novel The Frigate Bird. The novel’s narrator — a Cook Islands-born writer prone to rather extreme flights of fancy — is living in a New Zealand mental hospital when he meets the character. ‘I call him Sidewinder’, he writes, because of his habit of sidling up to you as if he is about to sell you a dirty postcard’. Sidewinder ‑ mischief maker, pickpocket and demon ‑ steals the show from a bizarre cast in The Frigate Bird and his choice as the title character in the sequel is a wise one.

In Sidewinder the narrator has moved to Penrhyn Island and married an Island woman, Tia. In his happiness he has cast Sidewinder from his mind. However, as he is plagued by his inability to father a child, the demon reappears and again becomes a dominant presence with his attempts to force the narrator to sign away his soul. This time Sidewinder is joined by two other demons, the Laurel-and-Hardy-like Belial and Beelzebub.

Sidewinder like The Frigate Bird is filled with an array of odd and endearing characters. Among the strongest in Sidewinder are two feuding Penrhyn elders ‑ a builder, famous for his powerful oral poetry based on Island legends, and a judgmental preacher who finds solace in his rival’s death.

It is a book which raises grand themes ‑ spirituality, culture change and conflict and gender roles (is the narrator a real man if he can’t father a child?) ‑ without ever taking them too seriously. Sidewinder contains many successful, self-contained episodes, which often build to comic climaxes. The links result from two quests for things the narrator cannot or will not provide: Tia wants his children, Sidewinder wants his soul.

Unfortunately, as the novel progresses, Sidewinder’s imagination and desire to fulfil his mission appear to dwindle. More could have been made, too, of an apparent conflict between. Sidewinder and the other demons. Sidewinder remains entertaining and acutely observed to the end, but it loses dramatic tension, and its climax is not altogether convincing.

 

Bernie Steeds is a Nelson journalist.

 

Tagged with: , , , ,
Posted in Fiction, Literature, Review
Search the archive
Generic selectors
Exact matches only
Search in title
Search in content
Search in posts
Search in pages
Filter by Categories
Architecture
Art
Autobiography
Awards
Biography
Byline
Children
Comment
Contents
ebooks
Economics
Editorial
Education
Essays
Extract
Fiction
Gender
Graphic novel
Health
History
Imprints
Language
Lecture
Letters
Letters
Literature
Māori
Media
Memoir
Music
Natural History
Non-fiction
Obituaries
Opinion
Pacific
Photography
Plays
Poem
Poetry
Politics & Law
Psychology
Religion
Review
Science
Short stories
Sociology
Sport
Subscribers only
Uncategorized
War
YA Reviewers
Young adults
Recent issues: subscriber-only access

Subscribe to NZ Books to access the issues above

Search by category

See more