Mysteries past and present, John McCrystal

Days are like Grass
Sue Younger
Eunoia Publishing, $30.00,
ISBN 9780994104762

Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley
Danyl McLauchlan
Victoria University Press, $30.00,
ISBN 9781776560479

Claire is a paediatric surgeon, newly returned to Auckland, city of her birth, from London, where she has been in full retreat from her past life. She’s back on a trial basis, to oblige her partner Yossi, and she brings with her Roimata, her 15-year-old daughter from a brief liaison many years before. The sole condition she imposed on Yossi when consenting to the trip was that he was not to ask about her past. Ever.

But the truth, like murder, will out, and the past immediately begins swirling up to meet Claire as she tries to stay doggedly head down in the entrails of her little patients. First, she is propelled into the media spotlight as she and her team seek to persuade a family to allow them to operate upon a child who has a life-threatening tumour, but who prefer to seek healing through “alternative” medicine. Claire and her colleagues have threatened to have the child made a ward of the state for the purposes of getting the surgery done, and the family go to the media to complain of the hospital’s arrogance and paternalism. In the course of googling the high-handed Dr Claire Bowerman, some journalist has made a connection between her and Patrick James Bowerman, who was the prime suspect in the disappearance of a teenage girl in 1970. Patrick is Claire’s father.

Then, a relative of another of her patients happens to glimpse a photograph of Claire’s daughter Roimata on the wall of her office. Turns out, Roimata is the dead spit of Rachel Rakena’s kuia, who also happened to be named Roimata. Rachel is putting pressure on Claire to meet and talk about all this.

Roimata gets wind of this possible link to her birth father and is all for finding out more, and she also learns that Claire’s own dad is still alive and begins urging Claire to reconcile with him. Yossi, whom Claire hasn’t fully taken into her confidence about her past, feels the need to find out more, in spite of his promise to her. He learns that there is an investigative journalist out there who believes he has evidence exculpating Patrick of the murder of the missing girl …

You’ll have guessed that Claire, for all her icy calm and self-control, is never going to be able to keep a lid on all this. And, meanwhile, she has to deal with any number of other tricky situations thrown up by her work. There is Triumph, obstructed bowel, who comes with a scrawny gang moll mum (Patch) and a colossal, patched member of the Mob (Knockers), and the surgery isn’t going to be easy. There’s little Che, abdominal trauma, possible retinal haemorrhage, a quiet, withdrawn little boy who appears to have been the victim of serial assault. After his operation, he languishes in the ward alone: his mum (Heaven: trashy clothes, make-up too heavy) and her current beau (Jayson: skinhead, aggressive, probably on meth) are off somewhere, partying.

In the end, and in spite of her best efforts, Days are like Grass is the story of Claire’s inevitable confrontation with her past – with Patrick’s alcoholism and the cloud under which he (and Claire) have lived since the disappearance of Kathryn Phillips, and with the suicide of her mother. There is an epigram at the opening of the book from Sartre, stating that “Childhood decides”, and this notion – that our formative experiences decide, for better or for worse, who we are – informs the whole project. When, for a moment late in the narrative, Claire thinks she has lost Roimata, she wanders by the shores of Hobson Bay where she used to go as a girl. There are mangroves there, with a lesson for us about the human life-cycle, children’s resilience and the limits of parental responsibility:

She remembers from a school science class that [mangroves] don’t have seeds like other plants. They grow their babies on them somehow, protecting them until they drop. They can float, these baby mangroves, and have an emergency food supply onboard to last them until they find the right soil.

There is little to fault about Days are like Grass (the title, incidentally, comes from a Hebrew poem that Israeli-born Yossi has occasion to recite: “As for man, his days are like grass; as the flower of the field, so he flourishes. For the wind passes over it, and it is gone.”) And, yet, it is somehow unsatisfactory. There is a little too much going on. A few too many of the ills of contemporary New Zealand society are given a face, and it has a story arc predictable even in its unpredictability, such as who turns out to have a heart of gold. And, while the disclosure of the facts of the central question (Patrick’s guilt or innocence) is relatively well managed, the emotional truth is not. Claire’s mother’s suicide seems hardly to rate with Claire alongside the on-going tragedy of Patrick, and we have too little sense of Patrick himself to really understand Claire. There’s a danger attendant on creating an unsympathetic character with whom we are supposed, ultimately, to sympathise: Younger doesn’t quite manage to make us care about Claire enough to forgive her.

So much for gritty realism. However, if you were watching it on telly and chanced to flick over to Danyl McLauchlan’s Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley, you’d experience a twinge of guilt for all the social worthiness you were turning your back upon, but not for long. You’d soon toss the remote aside and settle back to enjoy.

Mysterious Mysteries is, of course, the sequel to McLauchlan’s very well-received Unspeakable Secrets of the Aro Valley, but it stands alone perfectly well, largely thanks to droll info-dumps that bring you up to speed with events in the first novel. And, whereas Unspeakable Secrets took the better part of a hundred pages to hit its stride and voice, Mysterious Mysteries hits the ground running.

Danyl (the protagonist shares a name with the author) is back in Aro Valley after his spell in Her Majesty’s care. He’s seeking his girlfriend, Verity, and the manuscript of his novel, but both have disappeared. Nor are they the only things to disappear: people are being lured by whatever is contained in hand-delivered blue envelopes to a certain doorway, through which they are known to pass, but never to reappear. In spite of himself, and his well-founded aversion to getting involved in the dark, dangerous and semi-mystical arcana of Aro Valley, Danyl is drawn to get to the bottom of it all. His accomplice is, once again, the erratic anti/superhero psychologist, Steve.

The humour is the humour of caricature – exaggerating the real to comic effect – and it works wonderfully well. You don’t have to know real-life Aro Valley and its quirky, eclectic populace to enjoy McLauchlan’s depiction of it, but it helps.

Of course, none of it would work if there weren’t a solid framework upon which to fasten it. McLauchlan is an adroit story-teller – the plot moves and twists at an expertly managed rate – and there is a strangely compelling metaphysics behind it all. There is a pattern embedded in the human brain that we can discern, with the right pharmaceutical encouragement, and it forms a puzzle that can be solved. If there are enough of us trying to solve it, we can find our way through it to a portal. But you don’t want to know what lies on the other side of the portal, do you now?

You’re not going to learn anything of worth about the big questions or the human condition, but you’ll finish Mysterious Mysteries either determined to read Unspeakable Secrets, or to re-read both, and in either case, to hope there’s more where that came from.

John McCrystal is a Wellington freelance writer and reviewer.

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