No easy heroics, James Norcliffe

Shadow of the Mountain 
Anna Mackenzie
Longacre Press, $18.99,
ISBN 9781877460005

Mandy Hager
Random House, $18.99,
ISBN 9781869419424

Maurice Gee
Puffin, $19.95,
ISBN 9780143304005  

Each of these kidult novels tells a compelling story in a tightly written yet singular style, and each is utterly different. Moreover, in its own way, each is itself a celebration of the art of storytelling. None shies away from ideas, but these are neither laboured nor overly fore-grounded.

Shadow of the Mountain is the most conventional of the three in many ways. It follows the efforts of Geneva, a late adolescent girl, to overcome her feelings of loss after a family tragedy in order to complete a risky solo-climb on the rock faces of the title’s mountain. She lives on the family farm with her parents, a mother frozen into depression and a father barely coping. She attends a high school in a nearby city and is persecuted by bitchy contemporaries. This all sounds somewhat depressing and could have been but for the feisty determination of Geneva and our growing interest in her complex character, relationships and motivation.

Anna Mackenzie writes the story in the third person, although the focus is relentlessly on Geneva. This allows the writer skilfully to withhold information and develop the growing intrigue, which is shared not only by the reader but also the thoroughly decent Angus, who becomes Geneva’s boyfriend. Decency is a feature of both these protagonists, and both are guided throughout the story by a well-functioning moral compass.

The characterisation for the most part is surefooted, and Mackenzie is particularly good with the unravelling of the friendship between Geneva and the shallow Kitty. The fly in the friendship’s ointment, the boy-racer type Jax, with whom Kitty is smitten, is something of a caricature but this may be forgiven because he is filtered through Geneva’s perceptions. Kitty’s mother, Sonya, on the other hand, is sensitively drawn and utterly convincing. Less convincing, to me, was Angus’ mother, the psychologist Miriam. While it is amusing to see this domineering professional with so few insights into the people around her, it is unclear to me why she has such an animus against Geneva, even though this animus does later add complexity and tension to the Geneva/Angus relationship.

These are quibbles. Shadow of the Mountain grips the reader’s interest at the outset and thereafter rarely falters. The emotional and technical business of rock climbing and its obsessions are made very real and provide an ideal backdrop for the novel’s ultimate confrontation of physical and personal challenge. That the challenge itself is in the end a compromised one is as it should be, and far more satisfying than easy heroics.

In Smashed, Mandy Hager pushes a whole console of current issue buttons: rape, abuse, alcohol and prescription drug abuse, ADHD, teenage violence and genetics. Moreover, she has chosen to make her storyteller, Toby, the product of a Chinese-New Zealand father and an Irish-New Zealand mother. The book, as I write this review, has just been shortlisted by LIANZA for the Esther Glen Awards, and it is not difficult to see why. The blurb uses the word “hurtles” to describe the pace of the story and, for once, the word is justified, for as soon as it is launched the novel moves at alarming speed through the events of a few hectic weeks.

Hager has picked up the challenge of writing in the first person in the idiom of today’s youth, albeit a very particular youth: by his own admission a real-world geek and social loser. This, and the use of the present tense, gives the book an immediacy that never lets up. It is written, too, in the tradition of what came to be called some years ago “dirty realism”, and is today dubbed “gross out”. The closest the book comes to a sex scene is in the opening pages, where an almost orgasmic Toby projectile vomits all over himself and his partner’s “cute silky nightie”, breasts, hair and duvet. Thereafter, there is no lack of vomit, blood and sputum as the plot spirals on.

Toby seems to have only two friends, beyond his family: the incipient alcoholic petrol-head Don and the ADHD Carl who is hyper, obsessed with cowboys, and only rarely seems to take his Ritalin. The precipitating situation is a drunken teenage party. Toby has too much to drink and goes home with the nubile Jacinta, leaving his younger sister Rita, whom he had promised to look after, in the care of Don. Hung over next morning, he discovers that Don has raped Rita before delivering her home. Rita is traumatised, Toby is overwhelmed with guilt, anger and a sense of betrayal, and his parents are devastated.

Toby, despite being a “skinny Asian guy”, later over-fortifies himself with whiskey and arranges to meet Don near the Wellington foreshore to have it out with him. After the encounter, which Toby is too drunk to remember in any detail, Don is found severely bashed and ends up in a coma in intensive care. After this, the book follows Toby’s difficult path as he is arrested, remanded and set for trial, all the while trying to ascertain what really happened to Don.

The setting is very much Wellington, and we follow Toby downtown to Cuba Mall, Te Papa car- park, the reserve on Mt Victoria and, penultimately, a wild ride with Carl to Makara. Marianne Moore famously described poetry as imaginary gardens with real toads in them. There is a sense that Smashed is something of a real garden with imaginary toads, the non-stop pace disguising the thinness of many of the characters. Don remains something of a cipher, Carl never seems less than over the top, and many others are painted with a broad brush. Moreover, it is not altogether clear, apart from their outsider status what Toby, Don and Carl could really have in common, why they should be friends or should have remained friends.

The book is larded with questions of free will versus determinism. Toby is a first-year student at Vic studying biology, and is very familiar with Dawkins’ ideas in The Selfish Gene. Indeed, one of the more intriguing elements in the book is near the end where Toby is conflicted and finds himself in a real-life version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma.  Despite this, it is somewhat ironic that Toby’s first words to the reader are “We’re all just puppets”. Toby names the puppeteer as genes. Perhaps it would have been a little too postmodern to name the author.

Wellington is a long way away from the setting of Maurice Gee’s Gool. Here we are once again in the fantasy world of Salt, Gee’s much-acclaimed recent excursion into the genre.

Gool is not so much a sequel as a revisiting. The characters in the earlier novel appear again, but as the older generation, and an entirely different set of challenges confronts the new generation: Hari’s daughter Xantee, his son Lo, their friend Duro and a number of others.

The opening of the book swiftly and horrifyingly establishes the problem to be overcome, and it is massive. The world they live in has been visited by creatures – gools – from “outside nature”, invisible jellyfish-like beings with the foul stench of decay. One has gripped Hari, and while he fought free, he has lapsed into unconsciousness with a living fragment of the creature lodged into his neck, cutting off his ability to eat and threatening his life. While the fragment of the creature can be kept somewhat at bay by the mind powers of Hari’s wife Pearl and others, Hari will die and the world as they know it will be destroyed, unless the mother gool can be located and annihilated.

This opening situation is an imaginative tour de force. Maurice Gee ratchets up the tension in a fast-moving exposition so that the reader is immediately drawn into the drama. There is potentially the awkwardness of recapitulation, but the links between this book and its predecessor are economical and seamless. The third-person narrative style is spare and, in places, almost austere. Gee has eschewed traditional quotation marks altogether, which adds to this austerity. When the action is carried forward with dialogue, it is often as if we are overhearing snatches of conversation, and, given that most of the protagonists are telepathic, this fragmentary impression is underscored.

As in many fantasies, the story is in the form of a quest, a journey. Here, the pursuit is not for something tangible, but to find the solution to a problem, a solution teasingly suggested by an ancient myth. The tension is developed not just by the dangers and complications Xantee and Duro meet on the way, but by the tragic consequences to Hari and their world should they fail. It all makes for nail-biting stuff, and Gee delivers in spades.

The seeds to the solution are planted early on, and the dénouement is satisfyingly argued. Gee has commented that Xantee and Duro face terrible danger “without supernatural aids (except telepathy)… . They are very earth-like 15-year-olds and could be New  Zealanders.”  This is just a little disingenuous. The telepathy does involve some kinetic energy, but the rest is true enough, and there are, in the ruined city of Belong with its Ceebeedee, hints of a more familiar world once known and lost.  These links are sparingly made as well, and all the more haunting because of it.

I mentioned at the outset that each book under review is quite singular, but each compelling in its delivery. It is exciting to see three writers, one an acknowledged master, and two of developing accomplishment, flexing their muscles in such individual ways, and exciting, too, that New Zealand publishers are supporting this heterogeneity.


James Norcliffe’s most recent fantasy novel The Assassin of Gleam won last year’s Sir Julius Vogel Award, and his new novel The Loblolly Boy is forthcoming from Longacre.


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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Review, Young adults
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