Too many toppings, Ruth Nichol

Human Remains
Denis Welch
David Ling, $29.95,
ISBN 0 908990 65 0

I know, I know – Andrea Porter would never have got through to Allen Terrill on his cellphone. It would have been switched off or out of range, just as it had been earlier. But, in the interests of credibility, she should at least have tried to call him.

Andrea knows that Terrill has his phone with him – she’s been talking to him on it just a short time before, arranging for him to pick her teenage daughter up from a camp in the country and deliver her to Christchurch Airport. When Terrill is more than half an hour late, Andrea pulls out her mobile and a veritable frenzy of phone calls ensues. She calls her husband Max. Then she phones Terrill’s sister, and some family friends who may have seen the pair. She takes a telephone call from Max too, and briefly considers phoning the police. Even the state of the phone, “slippery with her sweat”, is described. But she never once tries to phone Terrill. “But why don’t they just phone in that case?” she snaps at one point. Why, wonders the reader, doesn’t she just phone them?

It’s a careless oversight which might have been forgiven had it not been compounded a few pages later by the matter of the ransom note. Thriller readers are happy to suspend some disbelief – we’re not talking naturalism, after all – but there are limits. And frankly, Andrea’s and Max’s docile acceptance of the note and its contents is the point at which credibility is stretched too far. It’s true that they make some token protests, but even if the note had come with flashing lights attached it couldn’t have been any more obvious that it is Not What It Seems.

It’s a shame. Until then, I’d been enjoying Denis Welch’s first novel, Human Remains. Sure, there had been a few clunky moments. A sentence like “His whole career lay ahead of him, like the yellow brick road” should never have survived the editor’s knife. But, to his credit, Welch makes it clear from the outset that he is not trying to write the great New Zealand novel.

His scene setting is competent enough. A boy finds a skeleton on a South Island sandspit in 1960. Four decades on, it’s linked to a similar skeleton found in Bolivia. Bright young American archaeologist Joe Chen is dispatched to Christchurch to investigate (allowing Welch to take some gentle swipes at the Garden City in the process). His description of Christchurch by night won’t win him any friends at the city’s PR office:

He would open the kitchen window late in the evening and imagine that a neutron bomb had wiped out all the people, leaving all the buildings standing. Then a car horn would honk in the distance and it seemed like a big event.

At that point Welch introduces more ingredients into the mix: a shady past for the charismatic museum director, Allen Terrill; a blackmailing associate; the reappearance of the boy who found the skeleton – now a 53-year-old loner; the discovery of his long-lost niece, apparently endowed with special telepathic powers; a love affair. And, just for good measure, a fin-de-millénium theme (the novel is set in the last few months of 1999). There are earthquakes, time-bombs at the airport and sundry other calamities.

Like a pizza with too many toppings, bits start to drop off. First to go is the skeleton; almost without warning, the novel completely changes direction, becoming not an archaeological detective story, but one about weird sex and paedophilia in Christchurch. So what’s new!

A real problem is that for all the action – and there’s certainly plenty – the characterisation falls flat, particularly that of the pivotal character, Allen Terrill. We know that Terrill has a dark past because the author tells us so. But when the full extent of its darkness is finally revealed, it doesn’t tally with the man we have been presented with; it lacks emotional truth.

The underlying spiritual element is confusing too. There are religious references throughout. At one point, for example, the love-interest, Mary, pondering the deep human desire to start over, to erase past mistakes, thinks: “Surely that was what the early Christians felt that Jesus had given them – a fresh start.” It’s not the comparison that would spring to everyone’s mind. But particularly baffling is the book’s final scene, in which May, the mute and blind savant, is magically given voice and sight on the death of her uncle Eric. I won’t even begin to speculate on the significance of that.

Perhaps Welch, a long-time political journalist and one-time political candidate, would have been better to follow the old adage about writing what you know. Curiously, however, the book has virtually no political content, no assessment of the state of New Zealand as it nears the end of this momentous century. Given its millennial theme, it seems an opportunity missed.

Ruth Nichol edits the Evening Post’s book page.

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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Review
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