Why should I have to review Lasenby? After all, the guy’s beaten me far too often in far too many Children’s Book Awards. I’ll review him because his Travellers quartet of Young Adult novels, now brought to an end with Kalik, is one of the most substantial structures in our children’s literature during the past decade.
Because We Were the Travellers (1997), Taur (1998), The Shaman and the Droll (1999), and now Kalik have inevitably been compared to Tessa Duder’s Alex quartet. It’s not a very useful comparison. Where Duder’s novels were character- and chronology-driven, accompanying their heroine through a detailed, realistic mid-lateish 20th century, Lasenby’s are plot-powered, following the journeys of Ish across a maimed, emblematic and futuristic land.
That land is emphatically New Zealand. Orklun and the North have been destroyed. Walls are levelled and water poisoned. “There were no trees, no grass. The ground was burned like pottery.” Later in the books, we’re told how the sun can grill a person’s skin, char a dog’s nose and ears. The Whykatto is parched; further south, white bears improbably roam. What caused it all? “The great medicines failed. Tuberculosis swept the world. And then the Sun went mad and killed people.” In other words – shut up, sit back, enjoy the story.
As the quartet develops, the place names become less specific and more satisfying. Teekawit and Towmranoo give way to The Great Snow Plain, The Island of Bones, The Cold Hills. The few humans who survive in these places have lost nearly all technology, and are left with “cooking pots, axes and ropes”. In place of machines, they have built ritual and myth. Is this a step forward or a topple backwards? Lasenby is sensibly non-committal.
The plots are accordingly packed with initiations, rites of passage, sacrifices. There’s butchery, cannibalism and graphic impalement. Warning: Some Content May Disturb – but only picky parents or self-appointed guardians. Kids have been gobbling it up ever since Because We Were the Travellers appeared.
Blurbs often describe Jack Lasenby as “our master story-teller”. I hate it when blurbs are right. Through all four books, the narrative treads on, steady, powerful, sometimes brutal. Ish struggles south to Elltun and across to South Land on an ice island which the author wisely keeps nebulous. He heads down a West Coast scorched to desert. There’s an astonishing scene where he emerges onto what were the Canterbury Plains via a volcanic river. The quartet is big in its time coverage, too. Years pass, especially in The Shaman, as Ish learns to be a healer.
The land is gaunt and gouged, but often bleakly beautiful. A few descriptions come with organ notes, but Lasenby shows the physical world splendidly:
We were surrounded by mountains, piled ranges, ridges heaped. Spurs serried like backbones of fish … snow covered everything, reflecting light off cliff, bluff and buttress. Dazzling. The only thing dark, a hard-bulged wall of black cloud above the mountain.
Ish, with his crooked leg, moves through these places like a quintessential Boy Alone, but with a need for family and fondness growing in him. Childbirth and drowning have killed his parents. He’s a speck in the landscape, selfish and itinerant, disrespectful, tenacious, increasingly responsive. He can draw shapes and talk to animals. He seems to overhear a lot of crucial conversations from a lot of hiding places.
He meets recurring character-types. There’s the damaged but potent companion (old Hagar, weaver of fabrics tangible and intangible, Taur, the mute Bull Man – “Glaw! Gaur! Gaw!”, the wonderful Shaman in his bear-hide). There’s the unredeemed villain who meets a squelchy end (Karly Campy, Squint-face); the femme fatale (Lutha, Sodomah); the four-legged friends. Three times in a row, a book ends with the death of the companion, which makes … well, it makes three times in a row.
Women get an indifferent press. They’re often scarlet seductresses or power-crazed priestesses, though it’s a girl who saves everyone at the end of the quartet, excising evil in a memorable denouement. Females flash their breasts to lure a lad to his doom, or roast a stray stud at full moon. The murderous matriarchy of the last two books – “Pay respect to Hekkat!” – won’t have won Jack Lasenby any feminist endorsement, which probably suits him just fine.
Kalik begins with massacre and destruction, then advances towards redemption, continuation, and a circle completed, as a group of slave children become the repositories of hope. As in the previous three books, characters are stripped to the basics by the harshness of setting and circumstances. “People die,” Ish understands in Because We Were the Travellers. “We are lucky if we have time to love them.”
Here, he and his fragile band are threatened by the blowtorch of the eponymous Kalik, a languid, serpentine consort who, in one of the author’s most adroit surprises, warps into a reincarnation of malevolence from The Shaman and the Droll, and who meets an end (you have to use that sort of phrase for Kalik) that out-Blackmores Lorna Doone.
It’s a blood-boltered story where disaster, death, disfigurement come with shocking speed. But the gore isn’t gratuitous. Nearly every death is a statement on the society that allows or causes it. Like Maurice Gee, whose children’s fantasies often echo and are echoed in this quartet, Lasenby writes with an uncompromising awareness of life red in tooth and fingernail. The result is a powerful moral and literary integrity that has little space for laughter. The author of Uncle Trev and Harry Wakatipu can write comedy that strains your stomach muscles, but there’s hardly any lightness or joy in these books till the very end of the very last. Yes, it’s a dimension lacking.
In Kalik, economic and spiritual hope is set firmly in the bottom of South Island. (Well, Longacre are a Dunedin firm.) Lasenby continues to evoke the inimical but transfiguring landscape. He continues also to startle with the speed of crucial scenes; when Ish breaks out with his young band of hope, it happens so fast that it’s almost perfunctory.
The children are mostly a conglomerate. It’s hard to remember Tupu from Tulu, or Hurk from Arak, but there are neat glimpses of individuality. Their ordeal swings between Lord of the Flies and Swallows and Amazons. It’s sobering as well as spirited, an adventure but definitely no idyll.
Jack Lasenby has a background as deer-culler and possum-trapper. He’s rumoured to have been one of the few people who helped partially humanise Barry Crump. Kalik and the books before it are full of details on how to snare rabbits and skin goats; cover tracks or cross a flooded river; use beeswax to secure arrowheads and maggots to clean wounds. (Do Not Attempt This Last Trick With Your Own …)
The authority with which Lasenby shows Ish growing and deepening is a recurring motif and strength in the narrative. “[A]ll I wanted was a family. And a place of my own,” he declares pretty melodramatically near the start, but it reflects what’s gone before, and it validates what comes after. With its protagonist showing more intellect and idealism, Kalik moves into the metaphysics of good and ungood, power and freedom, ignorance and enlightenment. “You’re allowed to kill someone who’s going to kill you”; “Power maddens us”: blunt, uncompromising thoughts from matching characters, and hardly ever didactic.
Kalik is emphatically a concluding book. The pre-cataclysmic world is recalled more specifically than in Taur or The Shaman. There’s no feeling of threads being dragged together, but there’s an immediate understanding that the trek Ish and his followers make is taking them from past lands towards a new order, while at the same time it recalls the great tribal journey that opened the quartet.
After four books where humans ooze towards brinks or edge away from them, Lasenby brings his readers to an ending marked by guarded hope. It’s an appropriate reassurance when you think of the covenant between writer and audience that marks Young Adult fiction, and it’s handled with excellent restraint.
Like the three before it, Kalik is studded with stories – and for the first time, the plot sometimes taps its foot while these stories are told. Myths and folk-tales from Europe, Asia, Polynesia extend plot and perspectives; suffuse them with archetypal, chthonic significance; enrich as well as entertain. Among other things, these are narratives about the force of narrative.
At each level and each stage, the narratives are told in Lasenby’s strong, spare, orthodox prose, which eschews floridity in a genre where it often swells. He puffs into portentousness a few times; for example, a shadow flits across the cave roof as an old woman dies. He veers rather perilously between past and present in a few tight spots, and some climaxes aren’t lifted above the general flow of the plot. But mostly he writes with such craft that you hardly notice how well he’s doing it. It’s a mark of that damn’ master storyteller again.
This year’s NZ Post Children’s Book Award judges obviously thought so, too. Kalik was on their Senior Fiction shortlist, just as all three previous books in the quartet have been. Yes, he beat me again.
David Hill’s new Young Adult novel, Right Where It Hurts, is published by Mallinson Rendel.