Wow! Karyn Hay’s first novel got a right regal slagging on Kim Hill this morning, both host Sean Plunket and a queasy-sounding male reviewer whose name I missed really putting the boot in, causing every bit as much GBH as any they despaired of in the book.
They were right about two things. Yeah, the penultimate passage explaining why out-of-it protagonist Ruth came to be such a mess was not really of a part with the rest of the story, seeming to come from a different book altogether. Secondly, there is no getting round the squalid nature of the thing: it is drenched in the relentless banality of a sordid, directionless existence.
The first thing is, indeed, a fault. There is too much of a gap between Ruth’s misshapen adult life and the small snippet of her childhood that serves to give psychological credibility to her later (in)actions. That the former feels like it’s set in London while the latter is indelibly Kiwi is also problematic, given that I’m pretty sure Hay wants us to view both as coming from the same environment. In fact, she is at pains to extract the merely geographical from her novel, making it hard to feel truly grounded in her world.
The second thing, however, is very much the point of the book.
This is the story of a single woman in her 30s who is beginning to realise that her adolescence has perhaps stretched just a little past its best-before-date. Well, actually, way more than a little. She’s flatting (still, at her age) with a sexually-addicted queer boy; is fucking Tracey, who is model-gorgeous but a little thick; and lusts after Martin, the very caricature of a late 1990s advertising man. She’s using everything from acid to heroin, losing her pathetic commercial radio PR job and may just be having a major nervous breakdown.
Imagine 1980s Doris Lessing crossed with Bret Easton Ellis and you’re some way to imagining what this book reads like. Including the humour because, like both the above, Hay can be caustically funny when she wants to be, and she wants to be most of the time. Maybe imagine Ab Fab scripted by Hubert Selby Jr…
It’s a tough line to walk, the gossamer thread that separates pathos from bathos, and I feel that when Hay crashes into the latter she does so with malicious, gleeful intent, well aware that some people are too sensitive to allow an enjoyment of the bathetic. In this sense the whole book is an Up Yours! to the same sort of people who objected to her strident Kiwi vowels on the telly. If you don’t get it, you’re too old/straight/boring/unhip – whatever –, so get back to your Coro and your single-malt tasting, and leave these acid-etched pages to those who know what it’s like to have thousands of phantom-feathered creatures nibbling at their medulla oblongata.
If such people do indeed constitute her target audience, they’re probably a bit too few and far-between to ensure healthy sales. So she (or her editor?) has provided the sort of clichéd plot contrivance that your airport novel reader would recognise, understand and be comfortable with. This being the traumatic childhood tragedy alluded to above, an almost identical conceit to that in three of last year’s Festival movies …
To use such an obvious mainstream device must surely be the move of a first-time author suddenly aware that her work needs some extra depth. Equally unfortunately, it means the novel falls between two stools (and stools loom large in this narrative) becoming a failure of nerve for those who enjoy the Trainspotting-style momentum of the story and just far too seedy for those who might otherwise accept the cod-psychology of the coda.
Also, the relegation of geographic reality to the abstract plane can tend to defuse the reality of some of the characters. The blokes especially are rarely more than cardboard cut-outs coaxed into unwilling life. This is probably deliberate – we are asked to inhabit the brain of someone verging on the psychotic after all – but can detract from a real commitment to the narrative.
In fact, I felt compelled to read the damned thing twice, realising that some of these niggly irritations were getting in the way of my appreciation of Hay’s actual skills. Sure enough, second time through, those negative aspects faded and the quality of her writing came through more clearly. Ruth’s brutal honesty, her ability to laugh in the face of everything she throws at herself, became something attractive rather than the repellent self-obsession it seemed on that first, overly critical read. The humour was much more evident, the bleakness more Mike Leigh than Ken Loach, the traversing of time zones more distinct and natural.
If I hadn’t been reviewing the book (or if I were more used to the art of reading to such an end) my secondary impression might well have more fully informed a single perusal. I also feel sure that, having plunged into the heart of darkness and finding it as funny as it is terrifying, she will give us a second novel that will be happy to perch securely on one stool. I further hope and trust this one will not be the mainstream furniture on which she chooses to alight, for there is a fine, darkly twisted humorist operating here, who should be chainsawing into all the grimmest parts of our psyches in search of irredeemable hilarity.
Chris Knox is a musician and jack-of-all-trades, who is looking for a job.