Sweet recklessness, Kiran Dass

The Salted Air 
Thom Conroy
Vintage, $38.00,
ISBN 9781775538820

“We strut about imagining heroism and lucky saves, but we’ve got it all wrong. Catastrophe arrives when the air is warm and people are everywhere … .” So observes the keenly self-aware but haunted Djuna in Palmerston North-based author Thom Conroy’s second novel, The Salted Air. Djuna is grief-stricken after the suicide of her partner, Harvey. She is also quietly guilt-ridden, as she feels implicated in his death, knowing he was high-risk. The daughter of progressive American parents – a circumspect mother and optimistic father – who emigrated to Palmerston North, Djuna smiles through sadness. “Life is not quite good enough, but there’s nothing better,” she muses at one point.

Djuna, who continued to live with her parents in a tight trio until the age of 23 – longer than some children, “but it was not long enough for me,” she says – remembers sharing journals with her parents. The journals were left in the kitchen for any of the three of them to read each other’s recorded thoughts and, sometimes, even respond: “me too!” Djuna writes in the margins next to a line written by her parents.

Shifting between Palmerston North, Wellington and the remote terrain of the North Island’s East Cape, The Salted Air follows the listless Djuna, as she struggles to find her place in her world. A slightly more than platonic and casual friendship with the decent Lyle, the magnetic friction of a hollow and unromantic (not to mention unsustainable) sexual affair with Harvey’s embezzling married brother Bruce, the slow crumble of her parents’ marriage, her father Eugene scarpering off to the East Coast to live on a kind of hippy commune, and the arrival of Burmese refugees to the home where Djuna grew up in Palmerston North, add to the increasing tension.

The form and structure of The Salted Air work beautifully. Djuna’s thoughts are like sketches and are presented like prose poems, some of them no longer than a paragraph, linking together like informal diary entries. This keeps the momentum and pace flowing.

Djuna has a confessional voice which is sometimes also nostalgic. She frequently looks to her past to examine why her present is so lacking: “For years, disappointment struck me as the baseline condition of a healthy and enjoyable life,” she narrates, confessing that she “grew up schooled in disappointment”. But, like all connoisseurs, she has developed a refined taste for it. This is a notion which is also echoed in the way she knowingly luxuriates in the “extravagance” of her grief. Pondering the loss of Harvey, she muses that it’s as if he’s been lost, like a comb or a car key. The thought, she says, “sends a thrill through me”. She discovers within a sweet recklessness, a new attraction to terror, finding it liberating and seductive.

Conroy does a superb job at conveying Djuna’s inner emotional world and nails the female voice, which feels authentic. After showering while staying at Bruce and his wife Joanna’s home, Djuna lotions her legs with pear and white tea moisturiser: “The pleasure of staying at other people’s houses is using their personal care products.”

While Djuna is a well-realised character, there are other characters at the edge of the frame. The Burmese refugees who are eager to purchase Djuna’s old family home to house the first mosque in Palmerston North didn’t add as much to the story as I expected. There’s Ella, the eight-year-old daughter of Bruce and Joanna; Lois, a glitzy family friend with whom Djuna stays in Wellington who offers the odd kernel of wisdom; and Tama, an ex-prisoner who runs a book depository at the East Coast campsite near a marae where Djuna follows her father.

The Salted Air is certainly atmospheric, though I felt that there were a touch too many laboured descriptions of the sky, light or wind. There’s the “grey half-lit distance,” or “the sky is coruscations, all rainbow and brilliant flecks”, and “syrupy peach is the colour of the hour”. Yes, we get it.

Design-wise, there’s something weird happening at Penguin Random House, who have been producing appalling eyesores of late. Trade paperbacks published using cheap and nasty looking/feeling paper, ugly typeface and a new peculiar trend of printing inky looking images (or just smudges) on the actual pages – Linda Olsson’s The Blackbird Sings at Dusk looks like it’s been misbound. I’m not a fan of the production design of Conroy’s novel and wish more respect and care had been given to his work, so it could look like the serious and intelligent novel it is.

Kiran Dass is an Auckland-based writer and reviewer who has covered books and music for the New Zealand Listener, New Zealand Herald, Sunday Star-Times, Metro, Landfall, The Wire (UK), The Spinoff, RNZ and 95bFM.

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