Helen Watson White
The Pale North by Hamish Clayton (Penguin, 2015), 221 pp., $30
The title of Hamish Clayton’s welcome second novel refers to the way the sun seems ‘out of position’ for New Zealander Gabriel North when he visits the northern hemisphere. North describes in his Berlin journal how the sun ‘occupied the wrong zone of sky for the autumn light it made. In New Zealand that particular sunshine fell from the pale north, here from the south. So my transition between hemispheres had altered the wide blue dial of the sky and it felt to me as if a fundamental law had silently shifted gear.’
This is how the world of the novel appears on first acquaintance: the angle of light somehow ‘wrong’ – eerily shifted aslant in its ‘otherworldliness’. The first part of The Pale North, named ‘The City of Lost Things’, opens with a man returning suddenly from abroad to reconnect with his former home of Wellington, now in ruins after a series of earthquakes has laid waste the city. We encounter the familiar street names, the characteristically vertical topography, but it’s not long before we sense that this is not – even in the relation of episodes from before the quakes – the city we thought we knew.
Of course nobody’s Wellington is ever the same as anyone else’s Wellington, but the narrative pushes our sense of alienation further, while playing on the familiar to a tantalising degree. Even those who haven’t lived on Glenmore Street (as it happens I have) will recognise its damp, leafy lower reaches towards Tinakori Road, made immediate to the senses by a writer who gets under your skin with his evocation of places and moods.
Glenmore Street is given an acutely felt reality because it’s the site of a house where the narrator lived with Charlotte, a woman he loved and lost. While the house may or may not have survived the earthquakes, the feel of it can be recalled in telling snatches of detail because of what it has meant to the man; in fact, calling to mind this lived-in house, and remembering the woman who shared it with him, become more important than trying to find it again.
Thus the world of the novel is constituted within the narrator’s memory and imagination – not a new idea, but one that impresses itself upon you with a degree of originality. This other world’s vague, dreamlike atmosphere seems like a sort of supernature imprinted on Wellington’s geography, using images drawn from a much wider culture and history. For instance, the woman Grace, who mysteriously appears (and disappears) in the ruins, is compared to a dryad, a wood-nymph from European mythology. Although her body is ‘firm and real’, she might be one of the ‘loose herd of ghosts’ seen earlier, or perhaps be mistaken, when standing alone in the stillness, for a piece of statuary.
We’re given increasingly strong hints that this is itself a work of legend or mythology. ‘The City of Lost Things’ is seasonless, weatherless, preternaturally calm and quiet; the story is told in a distant, floating style, as if by one passing over or passing through; there is little human interaction and almost no dialogue. Even the typsetting format, with ragged right edge and wide left margin, looks like a long, unbroken tale in heroic verse. Then there’s the serious subject: the vocabulary of loss includes multiple synonyms for ruin and desolation.
Yet this epic construction rests on a very slim footing. While the scale of the Canterbury earthquakes (which are referred to later in the book) mean that disaster was always seen as a collective tragedy, in this tale the tragedy is mainly personal: a man called Ash has lost his girl, the town he loved, and Colin, a close photographer friend. That’s about it, as far as plot is concerned, apart from Ash’s recollection of how he became a writer, through reviewing Colin’s photo exhibition for a magazine called Perseus in Wellington’s artistic underground.
Atmosphere is everything, in a general heightening of effect: the broken building where Grace resides is compared to a cathedral, and other shards of concrete to fallen gravestones; both Grace and a rescue-worker are said to be able to see right into Ash’s soul; a country church is inexplicably destroyed by an unseen wave of evil, and Colin’s house at Owhiro Bay is described as perched ‘on the edge of the world’ or ‘at the far ends of the earth’.
It’s something of a relief to find that a story that takes itself this seriously is just that: a story – within a story within a story. ‘The City of Lost Things’ is a short, anonymously written novella, found by chance in a box with other journals and workbooks, in an apartment attached to the Weldkulturen Museum in Frankfurt. Its writer, Gabriel North, is two degrees removed from author Hamish Clayton; the person who found it, one Simon Petherick, one degree removed (I hope) from Clayton – who, coincidentally, is of the same age and background …
Readers of Clayton’s award-winning first novel Wulf (which I consider truly remarkable) will have high expectations of this book. In some aspects they will not be disappointed, but I would stress this is a completely different work that can – and needs to be – enjoyed on its own terms.
Because there are so many interwoven stories, none of them can be compared to Wulf in terms of complexity. They are all drawn with broad strokes – even the longest, ‘The City of Lost Things’, which occupies well over half the novel. This means, for instance, that of the love affair between Ash and Charlotte we are shown mainly how it began and how it ended – on the same path in the Botanical Gardens – with very little of their workaday life in between.
It is easy to forgive the writer Daniel North (or his fictional writer-narrator) for his pretentious writing-about-writing: ‘I discovered the writer I would become as I wrote those pages … I felt, for the first time, the hard kernel of myself …’ He is a fictional character, and does manage touches of brilliance in other parts of the novella. It is not so easy, however, to like the fulminations of Petherick about the significance of his literary ‘find’. He seems to catch from North, along with an uncritical appreciation of the other’s small body of fiction and journal writing, an inflated sense of his own worth.
Sometimes the novel’s circles-within-circles are fascinating, with multiple stories of absence and disappearance complementing themes of exploration and discovery. Carried within each narrative sphere are related musings on chance and coincidence, meeting and missing, which stretch the narrative to global relevancy. On the other hand, some of the discoveries are not world-shaking, some ideas rise like bubbles and burst because there’s nothing in them; sometimes the chaps who see themselves as on some kind of quest get lost wandering – and wondering – in the ‘hinterland’ of interiority.
The book succeeds best as a mystery. Within that genre there’s a great ghost story, a charming (if briefly realised) love-story, and a grief-story that I won’t easily forget, about a Wellington that never was.
HELEN WATSON WHITE has been a theatre critic and reviewer since 1974. A Dunedin-based writer, she has published articles, short stories and poetry as well as art, opera and book reviews.