Slow Down, You’re Here by Brannavan Gnanalingam (Lawrence and Gibson, 2022), 206pp, $25
I am not sure how to tackle this review. I am tempted to call a spoiler alert because it is impossible to discuss this novel in any depth without giving away a plot twist that the reader deserves to experience without warning, as I did. On the other hand, if I assume my audience consists only of people who have already read the book then maybe I don’t need to talk about the plot at all. This, though, will make for a review that would be incoherent to other potential readers. It seems therefore that my ideal audience is people who are curious about the book but don’t actually intend to read it. I hope there aren’t many of you for I think this is an interesting novel that asks some serious questions and deserves to be read despite some stylistic quirks that I found irritating.
For the first fifty pages—the first act in a standard story structure—Slow Down, You’re Here paints a picture of what the blurb describes as ‘a dead-end’ marriage. Vishal and Kavita are Sri Lankan New Zealanders with two small children—Aarani, a pre-schooler, and Bhavan, a toddler in the early stages of learning to talk. Vishal works nights as a taxi driver, chasing fares and dealing with racist drunks. He is something of a no-hoper. Five years ago he lost his job in marketing with a software company and hasn’t had the gumption to find another. Kavita works in accounts and earns more than he does. The marriage is sexless if not loveless. Vishal wallows in depression while Kavita feels rejected, harassed and unappreciated. Into this bleak relationship steps Ashwin, an old boyfriend of Kavita’s, single, buff, affluent and assertive. He still holds a candle for Kavita and tempts her with a romantic few days on Waiheke Island. She wavers only briefly before arranging leave from her work and bullying Vishal into letting her go on what she tells him is a few days’ mental health break on her own. Within hours of her leaving, Vishal slips in the shower and suffers a heavy blow to the head.
He lay there immobile, as an internal drip, drip, drip onto his brain matched the last rites from the shower head. Everything else—thoughts, regrets and the day’s detritus—disappeared down the black hole of the drain.
From this point, which comes with the shock of another shower scene death—that of Marion Crane in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho—the plot diverges into two parallel storylines. In one, Kavita and Ashwin travel to Waiheke for their romantic holiday. Ashwin is surprised and gratified by Kavita’s ardour. She in turn is desperate for intimacy and the experience of counting for something in someone’s eyes. Outside of the bedroom, however, each finds the other not quite what they expected. They have both changed in the twenty years since their first acquaintance and in many ways they are strangers to one another. Ashwin feels he is walking on eggshells as he tries to guess Kavita’s thoughts and feelings. Kavita struggles with guilt at deceiving Vishal who doesn’t respond when she finally texts him. Gnanalingam documents their interactions with close attention to the everyday detail of the doubts and difficulties people go through in such circumstances. After three or four days, Kavita’s feelings crystallise. She wants to leave Vishal but she doesn’t want to be with Ashwin. She will take the kids and set herself up on her own.
The second storyline, presented in alternating chapters with the first, follows Aarani and Bhavan, shut in the house with the dead body of their father in the bathroom. To begin with they are helpless but as the exigencies of their plight begin to make themselves felt, Aarani takes the initiative: changing Bhavan’s nappies, teetering on a chair to look for food and to get water from the kitchen tap, comforting her brother when he gets upset. Gnanalingam’s ability to visualise the problems that a four-year-old would face trying to carry out everyday tasks in a world designed for people three times her height gives this story a quality that is both poignant and dramatic. Aarani’s heroic efforts as she tumbles off the chair or struggles to put a pot of water on the stove to cook pasta seem constantly on the brink of disaster. Will she fail and severely injure herself? Will she feed Bhavan something that will poison him? Will she finally manage to open the bathroom door and find out what’s in there?
Gnanalingam’s technique is essentially filmic. Each chapter is tightly confined to a single point of view and the narrative unfolds without gloss or commentary and with a minimum of metaphor. It is based in a steady accumulation of detail about thought and action. There is no direct attempt to evoke emotion or to create atmosphere. Even so, it seems designed to evoke a moral response from the reader. By interweaving the two storylines as it does, the text demands that we compare the two and judge one against the other. It’s as if its author, who is a lawyer, is presenting a case in court. Here are the facts, ladies and gentlemen, what is your verdict?
Our first response, prima facie, might well be to find Kavita guilty. The emotional impact of the children’s story overwhelms any justification she might have for her encounter with Ashwin. So what if she has a desperate need for love and affirmation? Her impulsiveness has left her children in peril. Is she not, at best, unacceptably selfish and, at worst, grossly negligent? In truth, the story might imply, her four-year-old daughter, struggling to care for her little brother, is a far better mother than she is.
The tendency to find Kavita guilty is at least questionable, however. Suppose the plot of the novel had followed a different scenario. Suppose Kavita had received a call for help from a friend or relative in distress, had argued with Vishal who didn’t want her to respond and had done so nevertheless, leaving him to care for Aarani and Bhavan while she was away. In this case, the children’s storyline would have unfolded in exactly the manner it does while the adult version would have shown Kavita being altruistic. Now our initial response might be more lenient, although we might still find fault: it is all very well for Kavita to be kind to others but her children ought to come first.
Or a third scenario. Suppose it was Vishal who lied to Kavita and ran off for a dirty weekend and Kavita who had died and suppose, too, just to reverse the genders completely, that Bhavan was the elder of the children left struggling to care for his baby sister. Would that first instinctive reaction be to condemn Vishal and hold him responsible for his kids’ predicament? And would we see Bhavan as a better father than his own father? I suspect that many readers would be less judgemental in this case. They would condemn Vishal for his betrayal but would be more inclined to see the children’s extremity as an accident.
Which in one sense, it is. All Kavita has done is lie to her husband, leave the children in his care and go off for a few days during which she is unfaithful to him. This is reprehensible no doubt, but it does not make her grossly negligent. She is not responsible for what happened after she left. The suffering of the children is terrible but, in and of itself, it has no moral implications. Rather than condemning Kavita, we should perhaps feel sorry for her.
All these possibilities circle around an assumption about the role of a mother. Her first and primary responsibility is to her children. This duty of care trumps all others, requiring at times devotion and self-sacrifice. Fathers have a similar duty but the default position is that women are the primary caregivers. Does Slow Down, You’re Here support this traditional position or is Gnanalingam offering it up for examination and asking us to make up our own minds? I leave it to readers to decide.
This, then, is a simple but challenging story that is well worth the price of admission. I only wish the writing consistently lived up to its dramatic promise. Unfortunately, there are times when it falls short. Most of the difficulty comes from a failure to take advantage of the tightly controlled points of view. This technique allows the reader to take for granted that everything that is described is something that the point-of-view character experiences. Thus, there is no need to refer to that character explicitly. For example, ‘She saw that it was 10pm’ need only be ‘It was 10pm’; ‘Aarani saw the ball roll down towards the kitchen’ could be just ‘The ball rolled down towards the kitchen’ and ‘When she looked out of the window, she saw Ashwin coming up the path’ could be ‘She looked out of the window. Ashwin was coming up the path’. The unnecessary words in such sentences clutter up the text with an unnecessary semantic layer between the reader and the experience. The writing is thus less vivid and immediate, qualities I would have thought Gnanalingam would be striving for.
A second, similar type of redundancy comes from the explicit attribution of interior monologue as in ‘… he was just being pathetic, she thought’. Here, again, the last two words are unnecessary, given the point of view is clear.
A third problem is the matter of voice. Close adherence to a limited point of view is often accompanied by a style that is coloured by the voice of the character. In such an approach, description of the thoughts and actions of, say, a working-class character would not involve long complex, grammatically correct sentences and Latinate vocabulary, but would stick to something close to a working-class register. Gnanalingam seems to want to follow this approach—his sentences are short and simple—but there are lots of glitches in the vocabulary. These are most apparent in the chapters dealing with the children, where words like ‘exhortation’ and ‘descended’ seem glaringly inappropriate. Or, for example:
Aarani sat at the front door and stared at it.
Bhavan was more lethargic that morning. He kept saying ‘Tummy’. The fifth time broke Aarani’s vigil. She walked over to him and gave him a hug. She could feel tears coming but she blinked them back.
Here the short sentences and the simplicity of the syntax and most of the vocabulary are well-suited to a child’s point of view. The words ‘lethargic’ and ‘vigil’ jar in contrast.
Some readers will doubtless tolerate such faults and accuse me of pedantry for pointing them out. For me, they were frequent enough to affect my enjoyment of the book, which was a pity for I otherwise found it gripping and thought-provoking.
Gnanalingam is unusual among New Zealand writers in that he is not afraid to confront moral and social problems head-on. Slow Down, You’re Here follows his previous novels: Sprigs, with its examination of the circumstances around a horrendous rape, and Sodden Downstream, the story of a poorly paid office cleaner struggling to get to work in a violent storm because she is afraid she will otherwise lose her job. Gnanalingam is a storyteller with a conscience and all the more interesting for that.
CHRIS ELSE is a writer, reviewer and manuscript assessor. He lives in Dunedin.