Behaving curiously, Hamish Clayton

Sydney Bridge Upside Down
David Ballantyne
Text Publishing, $32.00,
ISBN 9781921520020


It’s hard to think of a more spectacular re-emergence in local literature than that, last year, of David Ballantyne’s 1968 masterpiece Sydney Bridge Upside Down. Ballantyne has been one of the great forgotten figures of New Zealand writing, and central to the mythology surrounding his “outsider” status has been the curious history of acclaim and neglect of this novel, routinely regarded by those in the know as Ballantyne’s tour de force. Patrick Evans reportedly called it “the great, and unread, New Zealand novel”, and it’s hard to disagree with him, given both that it’s been out of print since 1981, and the roll-call of New Zealand fiction writers who’ve applauded its achievement over the years. Frank Sargeson and C K Stead were among its early champions, while more recently the book has been celebrated by Emily Perkins, Bernard Beckett and Kate De Goldi, the latter providing an appropriately absorbing and appetite-whetting introduction to the current republication.

It’s worth lingering on De Goldi’s acute and penetratingly accurate preamble. Reprising an earlier Evans argument, she makes the case for Sydney Bridge Upside Down based largely on its part in a wider trope in New Zealand literature: the gothic, slaughterhouse fiction whose overtones have resonated in writers as diverse as Mansfield, Frame and Morrieson. She also pays due attention to the novel’s writerly qualities, to the “sing-song voice of the story-teller, evoking a fairy-tale ambience, alerting us to an ‘other’ world and the possibility that nothing is as it seems.” The comment is insightful, for it is this lyrical quality – and the ends to which it is deployed – that help explain the novel’s ongoing relevance, and suggest why it has been so lauded on its most recent reappearance. In form and fit, Sydney Bridge Upside Down can – and even ought to – be read as a contemporary novel, one concerned not with the recording of a historically or socio-culturally specified time and place, nor with the teasing out of faithful local detail measured in strictly realistic terms, but as fiction which feels like a contemporary reinvention of a darkly menacing New Zealand seen through a nonetheless determinedly nostalgic lens. The novel illustrates how the familiar local terrain can be imbued and invested with a strangeness that heightens its by now deep-seated, psychological associations with the darkness of the New Zealand psyche, associations rooted in a curious amalgam of landscape, isolation and lost innocence with a sense of madness and despair hovering at the brink.

The novel relates the story of its narrator Harry Baird. Harry is a boy of indeterminate age throughout most of the novel, precariously perched between child and adult worlds. So far this is a straightforward premise, more or less familiar through countless novels set both here and overseas. The first glimpse of originality lies in how Sydney Bridge Upside Down defies and distorts the conventions that, given the basic set-up, would routinely apply. Instead of the measured voice of the now grown-up narrator recalling a childhood ingrained with the wisdom of the years or the direct, first-person imitation of a child’s voice, Sydney Bridge Upside Down opens, arrestingly, with a voice whose natural mode is the fairy-tale:

There was an old man who lived on the edge of the world, and he had a horse called Sydney Bridge Upside Down. He was a scar-faced old man and his horse was a slow-moving bag of bones, and I start with this man and his horse because they were there for all the terrible happenings up the coast that summer, always somewhere around.

But within that fairy-tale lilt and eye for detail other tones lurk slyly as well. Subtle yet undeniable local hints colour this voice: “up the coast that summer” could have been burgled from a Sargeson or Maurice Duggan short story. More spookily, given the time gap, the idea of New Zealand evoked by Bill Manhire’s famous line “I live at the edge of the universe” also resonates here in the opening sentence: “old man who lived on the edge of the world”. Throughout the early stages especially, the idea of living on the edge of the world goes beyond a poetic descriptor of the instantly recognisable small-town coastal New Zealand (almost certainly based on Hicks Bay) and comes to make a pointed association between isolation and mental states on the edge. As Harry’s neighbour Mrs Kelly warns the boy: “No part of the country, of the world even, seems so far away as this. And when people are faraway and lonely they often behave curiously, this is well-known.” As in the best and darkest fairy-tales, the quiet menace of the opening does not give way to resolution but is ratcheted up, slowly, holding through the climax right until the riveting and tragic final section with its heart-breaking closing lines.

Like the most enduring literature, this is a book which rewards multiple rereadings. Though the timeline of events is relatively simple, it is made complex in the retelling. The narrative jumps backwards and forwards, skipping events, returning to others, eliding some. What happened to Harry’s best friend Dibs Kelly on the afternoon when Harry pushed him over the cliff? What was Harry’s part in the death of Susan Prosser? What was Mrs Kelly doing with the loathsome butcher and ladies’ man Chick Wiggins at the river in the butcher’s van? Harry, arriving to find the scene strangely abandoned, concludes that “It was as if I had only imagined seeing them.” These unexplained threads are artfully laid out. They compel the desire to reread, but they also evoke the sinister heart of the book: their significance is muted, present but felt only in faint echoes, and more menacing for it. Sometimes events – Harry’s mother’s absconding and her extra-marital involvements, for example – are simply beyond Harry’s childhood reckoning, but others – such as his role in Wiggins’s fate – show Harry to be a tragic childhood figure, confused, violent, only half aware of the forces acting upon him, and thus rendered incapable of fully understanding and controlling his responses in return.

Above all, it is his disturbing erotic dalliances with his far older cousin, the beautiful Caroline, which most mark out the shape of Harry’s existence, as troubled as it is troubling. Desired by all the men in (significantly named) Calliope Bay, Caroline’s arrival from the city triggers intense and contradictory feelings in Harry. He is both protective of her, especially against the unwelcome advances of Wiggins, and conscious of the stirrings of his own sexual desire – “She was sitting up in bed. The sheet had slipped. After a moment or so I noticed that she looked more beautiful than ever” – even as he strives to resist her advances:

What do you want me to do? Do you want to grab my hand and do what you did when we were running the other morning? You know, when you held it down there between your legs, and wouldn’t let me take it away. I can’t, dear Caroline, I can’t, I can’t.

Symbolically echoing Harry’s struggle to negotiate the tricky terrain between childhood and adult worlds is the abandoned slaughterhouse. Once the favourite fantasy-land playground of Harry and his friends, it is transformed by degrees into a place of nightmare, madness and death. Its history of slaughter, felt faintly at first, becomes increasingly tangible throughout the novel, as Harry slowly reveals what the “terrible happenings … that summer” actually were. On the other hand, the symbolic value of the scar-faced old man Sam Phelps and the swayback horse of the title, Sydney Bridge Upside Down, “always somewhere around”, is more obliquely figured. Together Phelps and his horse seem to represent all that is mysterious and foreboding, all that is sinister and threatens to engulf Harry.

Throughout the novel, the language feels galvanised with a remarkably contemporary sheen, a lustre which not only shines through the years but somehow defies or transcends them. Sydney Bridge Upside Down ought to be counted as one of our most compelling, uniquely-wrought pieces of literature of any period. But further, this unfailingly unredemptive modern fairy-tale deserves to be counted among the most exciting contemporary local novels for its implicit, uncanny acknowledgement that any worthwhile take on an imagined past also charts where we are in the present.


Hamish Clayton’s first novel Wulf was reviewed in our Winter 2011 issue. 

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