Lamplighter, by Kerry Donovan Brown (Victoria University Press, 2014), 160 pp., $28
Several things place this novel as Young Adult. The 18-year-old protagonist and coming of age story, most importantly. Also, at least going by convention, the shorter novella-like word count (though it has to be said recent YA novels seem to be getting longer than their adult counterparts). It’s far more than a simple genre piece though.
Lamplighter was written when Kerry Donovan Brown was a student at Victoria University of Wellington’s International Institute of Modern Letters; it subsequently won the university’s 2012 Adam Foundation Prize, awarded to the best work in the creative writing MA programme. (Man Booker prizewinner Eleanor Catton is a previous recipient so he’s in good company.)
Donovan Brown deftly sketches a rich and compelling universe. Porbeagle is a remote South Island settlement that lies just outside of time; it looks 1990s-contemporary but holds onto archaic traditions, such as a village lamplighter whose role is about to be phased out when electric fixtures replace the lamps he lights around the boundary of the town’s treacherous swamp, leaving uncertain the future of his apprentice grandson, known as Candle. Furthering a sense of being outside our time, ‘the villagers’ – in addition to being called that anachronistic term – refer to eventide, defer to a villagehead, and recite superstitious chants in fearful reverence of the swamp (‘the night, the swamp, is black, is foul’). The town is close-knit and the vaguely oppressive atmosphere of a small community comes across subtly, as does the slow pace of small-town life, like moving through syrup.
Porbeagle is suffused in folklore that may or may not be real – there are magical creatures like the ‘doggod’ (a wolf with the voice of a man), and talismans to guard against them – yet there are also fish-and-chip shops and videogames, the very stuff of ordinary life. It’s our world refracted, just slightly askew. Donovan Brown tells us in the first chapter that ‘Treading the perimeters between worlds can be tricky, with one foot in the wilderness, one foot in civilization.’ He’s talking about the eponymous lamplighter, Ignis, but he could also be talking of his own authorial voice, which treads the line between worlds realist and magical, folkloreish and quotidian. The swampbrink is that in-between zone, a kind of metonymy for the fluid way the writing slips in and out of fantasy and reality, blending an original world of old and new.
Donovan Brown knows when to elide, and when to flick to another scene – some are just one or two sentences with quick cutaways, almost filmic. Chapter titles are akin to the ‘interior, day’ set notations on movie scripts, simply labelled with the setting of that chapter: Lagoon, Stopbank, Emerald’s House, Sylla’s House. The titles repeat as characters return to their habitual locations, setting up a wonderfully three-dimensional, spatial sense of the village and an elegant internal rhythm (one that finds its echo within chapters too; in one the sound of the lamps being lit, ‘hwofff!’, repeats at regular intervals as the lamplighter makes his way around the swamp).
Although light is a central motif, it counter-intuitively obscures rather than illuminates. In one scene a camera flash ‘rebounds on the ocean surface’, making the image unreadable; in the same way the town’s admiration of the lamplighter (and their fetishising of fabled tales of mysterious and sinister beasts in the swamp) relegates the real darkness in the town – a tortured past of homophobia, hate crimes, alcoholism, domestic abuse and colonial ills – to the unconscious. (Symbolically, those truths come to light at the end, as the lamps are extinguished.)
The language is another forte: lyrical but concise, never bloated. ‘The film of water left by the last surge of the tide’. ‘Clouds bruise against one another on the horizon.’ (Wonderful collective nouns: too ‘a force of children’.) In this aqueous world, characters go fishing, boating, surfing, work at an aquarium. Candle’s aunts rode ‘a current’ away from Porbeagle to settle elsewhere, and Candle’s home is like ‘living in the inner chamber of a conch shell’, ‘airy and dim’. The pushy villagehead is described alluding to the ocean: ‘There are glossy half-circles under her eyes, like the insides of certain seashells’, while her name hides the Māori name for water. Even the name of the town is a type of shark.
Water is described with searing imagery: ‘The skin of the surface sucked Pete in deeper, like the gentle, contracting muscles of a mouth. It crept up his stomach, chest, over his shoulders, neck, and then enveloped him completely.’ The sexual connotations there are set up in the scene’s start (‘Candle has heard Wet Pete’s origin story many times before. In his head he has elaborated on this particular image a thousand times. The naked bushman, dappled in sunlight …’) and furthered in the scene’s wet dream-esque end: ‘Pete on the other hand was soaking wet, a puddle forming where he lay.’ It’s the first real hint of Candle’s desires, foreshadowing his relationship with Rib and navigation of a community where queer acceptance is far from guaranteed. The LGBTQ narrative, which eventually dovetails with the Lamplighter’s obsolescence, is set from the get-go in the punning insult ‘Go Homo’, thrown at Candle on the first page, eventually reaching catharsis at the end, where Candle throws off his robe for a life-drawing class, symbolically asserting pride in who he is.
One of the most intriguing aspects throughout is the distance of the narrative voice, which operates with a kind of formal remove: ‘When Gill asks if Candle would like to go out with him, fishing, or for a hunt, or to the shops, he asks while he’s not facing Candle, as if in passing, with something like shyness.’ It changes at the end though, the last lines of which are in the first person, an urgent direct address to the reader so bold and so effective it’s hard not to smile in glee. It’s an impeccable ending to a fantastic first novel.
GEORGINA MCWHIRTER, a graduate of Auckland University, is a magazine editor in New York.