“thethrillingalchemy”, Emma Martin

From the Cutting Room of Barney Kettle
Kate De Goldi
Longacre, $30.00,
ISBN 9781775535768

Kate De Goldi’s writing for children and young adults has been acclaimed for its vibrancy and verisimilitude. De Goldi often takes the reader into psychologically complex territory and, for this reason, her books are sometimes pegged as adult fiction in children’s clothing. Certainly, they reward an adult reading; but, at the same time, De Goldi has a sure instinct for how to engage the younger reader. Her writing style is accessible, lucid and unpretentious, yet it is also extraordinarily subtle. Undercurrents swirl beneath the surface, whether the reader is alert to them or not. This is literature that will give children what they want, and also what they may not yet know they need.

The question of what stories are – and, in particular, what they are for children – is at the thematic heart of De Goldi’s new novel, From the Cutting Room of Barney Kettle. Twelve-year-old Barney and his sister Ren, who together comprise Kettle Productions, have already corralled a troupe of friends into making several short films, shot in the eclectic city High Street which is their home. Barney – visionary, driven, temperamental – is in no doubt that one day he will be a famous director, having developed a taste for “thethrillingalchemy” that is film-making. On one memorable occasion, Barney convinces Ren to stand on a rock in a storm-swollen river, only for her to slip and fall – the salient point being not that he encouraged her to take a foolish risk, but that he “continued to film her when she went into the water”. His mother affectionately accuses him of megalomania. On the outside, he is all blustering self-confidence but, on the inside, he is feverishly engaged in the project of transforming himself into the person he is destined to become. De Goldi captures perfectly this awkward and fragile combination of self-consciousness, unworldliness and utter self-belief.

Ren, nearly two years younger, finds herself following somewhat in Barney’s creative wake. She is Kettle Productions’ “Slasher” – producer/assistant director/casting director/set designer/costume manager/location scout/caterer – a role she happily embraces, given her practical bent and penchant for list-making. The pair of them are almost inseparable (Barney’s friend Edward is appalled when Barney and Ren end up in the same composite class – “it’s not natural. You should refuse to go to school” – but Barney is unconcerned). De Goldi is insightful on family dynamics, and the novel is, in part, a nuanced study of a brother/sister relationship. But it is also, more broadly, concerned with the importance of community to a child’s developing sense of self. Kettle Productions’ new project, “the Untold Story”, is a documentary about the High Street and its people. Amidst the colourful cameos of the High Street’s inhabitants, the novel captures the moment at which our pre-teen protagonists first turn their (literal and metaphorical) cameras upon their surroundings and become aware of these surroundings as an outsider might see them.

But Barney and Ren are not the only storytellers on the High Street. Like a geometric puzzle in which differing sized squares are hidden within one larger square, the novel includes countless narratives nested within, and bumping up against, each other. Things start to get interesting when the siblings stumble across a series of mysterious zines in envelopes addressed pointedly to “YOU”. They become obsessed with the characters in these wordless comics, the troubled Orange Boy and his sidekick Crimson Girl, who may or may not be real. Then, items from the Street’s shops start disappearing – two Milano panettone, some vinyl cushions, a Dachsund one-piece salt and pepper shaker, a lucky ornamental brass fish – and Barney and Ren determine to find the thief. But, if they are observing, they are also – unnervingly – being observed, and what begins as a playful game of hide-and-seek becomes, as the novel progresses, something more confronting.

The narrative alternates between Barney’s and Ren’s points of view, framed by yet another story: that of an unnamed man whose identity is one of several mysteries the novel offers up for the reader to solve. He is recovering in hospital from serious injuries and his commentary on Barney and Ren’s story has a poignant tone: it is clear that some calamity lies ahead, the nature of which may be suspected by readers (though the city is not named in the text, it is modelled on Christchurch). The framing device, which initially seems over-elaborate, is in fact shrewdly deployed, providing a reassuring point of reference within which the novel’s main storyline plays out. Beyond the frame of the novel, one may also sense the ghostly presence of the author herself. If The Cutting Room of Barney Kettle is not a novel explicitly about Christchurch, it is one whose generative force derives from the recent history of that city, and the catastrophic scale of the loss incurred there.

What loss means for children is a recurring theme in children’s literature. Nostalgia is not the sole prerogative of age: the very process of growing up involves an ongoing series of losses, as we successively outgrow our own skins. Looking at the childhood cabinet in the High Street’s Living History Museum, Ren experiences

a great regret for all the passed-over toys of her eleven-year-long life. How could she have been so careless? … Mum had persuaded her to donate all the My Little Ponies and some old soft toys to the city Mission. Why had she agreed to that?

Storytelling in its many forms can preserve and commemorate. Yet, as much as stories may comfort, they may also destabilise previous certainties. Over the course of the novel, Barney’s and Ren’s cosy sense of belonging to the High Street is called into question by competing narratives. Faced with a comic-strip version of herself, “her spectacle lenses … as wide as windows, her eyes giant marbles”, Ren feels uneasy. In the end, it is this fine line between reassuring the reader and challenging or disquietening them which De Goldi herself treads with such assurance.

If all of this sounds rather serious, be assured that From the Cutting Room of Barney Kettle is funny, exuberant, and a rollicking good read. I shared my copy with my nine-year-old daughter Bessie, interested in how her responses might compare with mine. She thought the story was “amazingly told” and “made me feel like the street was an actual place – like I was in the street and knew all the people.” In the interests of full literary immersion, she successfully lobbied to test out Toast-cake, Barney’s favourite after school snack, comprising

extremely thick slices of toast on which was built a cake-like mound of butter, Nutella, peanut butter, sliced banana, a scatter of raisins, salt, grated cheese, just a little ground pepper, and chocolate sprinkles, lightly grilled to melt the cheese and the sprinkles.

(Our verdicts diverged on the edibility of this concoction, if not on the novel itself.)

Toast-cake aside, the biggest difference in our readings was that, though my daughter is a sophisticated reader for her age (and despite picking up various other clues and connections that I missed), the devastating climax of the novel came as a shock to her. “I knew something bad was going to happen, but I didn’t know what.” Then: “I sort of knew, but I didn’t want it to be true.” Children’s experience of fiction can be especially raw. Perhaps this is why, in childhood in particular, certain books sear themselves into our memories. They become archetypes according to which we interpret future experiences, even after their details are long forgotten – in the words of Barney Kettle’s narrator, they “more or less take up residence inside you”.

From the Cutting Room of Barney Kettle is this kind of book: one that deserves to be read at least once in childhood, and again looking back. Part mystery, part comedy, part social commentary, part requiem for a lost world, it is also one of the cleverest and most structurally inventive books of the past year. A tour de force.

Emma Martin is a Wellington writer, who won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for the title story of Two Girls in a Boat, her first collection.

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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Review, Young adults
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