Landfall by Tim Jones (Paper Road Press, 2015), 38 pp., ebook US$2.99
Simply by sailing in a new direction
You could enlarge the world. – Allan Curnow, ‘Landfall in Unknown Seas’
Let me begin this review by admitting two things up front. Firstly, I like the very idea of Paper Road Press’ Shortcuts series; a collection of e-novellas connecting back to the shores of New Zealand – however far-flung the tales may be – appeals to the notion that good things come in small packages (and readers: do check out all six novellas in this series, because each one contributes something at once compact, and strange and unexpected). Secondly, I’m already familiar with Tim Jones’ writing and anthology work, so I went into this expecting a certain quality, and a romp through a world of characters and dilemmas that would no doubt be new and novel.
What surprised me in Jones’ novella was that, through its speculative starting point, it deals with truths and possibilities that hit hard and are close to home. Here, Jones uses speculative future-forward fiction to pose scenes and dilemmas that are almost a little too within the realm of possibility.
The book opens with twin torpedoes sinking a rickety Bangladeshi river ferry carrying refugees just off the coast of New Zealand; and it follows two characters in alternating chapters towards an inevitable encounter with each other. We are first introduced to Nasimul, who survives not only the loss of his wife and son but also the sinking of the ferry and the ensuing firestorm of the determined New Zealand navy and finds himself, by the end of the first chapter, clinging to a remnant from a lifeboat, floating on the tide towards shore. The tone shifts dramatically when we come to the second chapter, in which we meet foul-mouthed Donna, a new and inexperienced recruit in the Shore Patrol who shows little potential but a good deal of enthusiasm.
Tim Jones has a way of setting the scene with a matter-of-fact tone that nevertheless hints at an impending disaster: ‘The old river ferry had been held together by little more than wire and faith ever since they were chased out of Australian territorial waters.’ That tenuous mixture of wire and faith is, from the very beginning, something that’s bound to fail. The close of the opening chapter is equally chilling; after the fire exchange, after more lives are lost, the Navy returns to base and evening falls, and Nasimul and the reader are left with only wind and tide to guide them through the night.
I would have liked my introduction to Donna to begin with her Shore Patrol unit – we meet her with an initial scene that is less effective than the immediacy of Nasimul’s reality. The preamble to Donna’s story sets the tone of her jittery character, but her story really picks up when she gets to her Shore Patrol unit, right about when we hear her assessment of her new gig: ‘one of the coolest things about Shore Patrol: they got radios, these little walkie-talkie things that were pretty much like phones except you couldn’t text’. And Sergeant’s introductory speech plunges us into the mission:
We must never forget that the threat we face is very real: millions upon millions of poor and desperate people, displaced from their teeming homelands by the rising seas, who look south hungrily at our green and fertile lands. They’d overrun us in months if we let them, and the Shore Patrol is a vital second line of defence that frees our nation’s Navy and Army to do what they each do best.
Sometimes the novella relies a little too much on character monologues illuminating the prevailing politics (see previous quote), with individuals delivering their lines (mini-speeches) a little too earnestly, as when the captured Brian tells his reasons for helping the refugees: ‘Why? Because everyone on these boats is a human being in desperate need of help, yet our government sinks the boats, shoots the survivors, and sticks anyone who manages to make it ashore into concentration camps.’
But even so, it’s an absorbing novella – and if you’re going to tackle the issue of refugees flooding a prosperous shore, maybe you need characters stating their positions with no frills.
The central structure works well, as the novella flows toward the point of intersection, with juxtaposed movements of the two central characters. Nasimul drifting on the tide feels slow and almost natural, while everything about Donna’s energy is a little off-kilter (even the uniform and hat don’t quite fit, while the badge does). Nasimul spends long hours alone, and even once he reaches shore he struggles with agonising pains of thirst and hunger, and with the search for shelter and sleep. His needs are basic; his life consists of slow movements and hard dreams. He wears ill-fitting clothes, pulling on a shirt and pants he finds in an abandoned house where he spends his first hours ashore in Aotearoa.
Donna, on the other hand, jerks about in her ill-fitting uniform from one conversation to the next, from one awkward moment to the next. She is plunged into a world as strange and new to her as Nasimul’s is to him, perhaps. The difference between the pair being that she wants to fit into the uniform she’s stepped into.
But it’s clear that neither of them will be comfortable in the clothes they wear. And the story becomes a back-and-forth telling of their two separate and then joining paths. Nasimul crawls to shore, leaving a violent transit behind: half of the river ferry occupants drowning en route, his wife succumbing to fever. But he has no idea of the violence that awaits him in this new world once he lands on the stinking shore. Donna, meanwhile, is a bundle of new-recruit nervy energy with a gun she claims she’s good at using – for stock-still targets, anyway. She lurches forward willing herself into her job, even as she wonders what she’s doing:
It had been a shit of a night. With each tired footstep, with each half-heard noise in the darkness that set Rufus, the stupid bloody untrained bloody mutt, barking and straining at his leash, Donna wondered what the flying fuck she was doing here with this bloody dog, with the bunch of grinning morons who were no help whatsoever …
From the beginning, each of them puts one foot in front of the other, inexorably moving towards their encounter. For his part, Nasimul is a strong swimmer; instincts guide him to let go of his makeshift raft and get himself onto terra firma. Donna, meanwhile, reminds herself to ‘think happy thoughts’, for ‘good things came if you joined the Shore Patrol’.
There are other things besides the sometimes faltering, sometimes lunging, steps of Nasimul and Donna that propel this novella forward: water as a theme – taker of life, giver of life (surviving in the Tasman is not like swimming in the warm coastal waters of Bangladesh) – and snappy dialogue:
‘Got a girlfriend, Brian?’ asked Staff Seargeant Anderson. ‘Boyfriend? Husband? Wife?’
‘Leave her the fuck out of this.’
There are intense moments of violence, from machine-gun fire to fist-pummellings, as two cultures clash, and a creeping fear, both for the survivor who has come ashore in this strange and inhospitable land, and for the mighty Shore Patrol, whose focus is protecting the motherland from the invading masses (if they don’t protect her, who will?). And there is a whining, unhappy dog whose cries punctuate the story as we navigate the uneasy night.
Whether Nasimul and Donna will survive is one question, but also looming large at the heart of this timely tale is the dark space where fear of the unknown is met by firepower. Tim Jones deftly tackles the big themes of racism and xenophobia in the small space of this novella, and the reader is left with the unsettling knowledge that the problems that manifest in the littoral zone between first-world bravado and the needs of the rest of the world will not wash away with the tide.
MICHELLE ELVY is a writer, editor and manuscript assessor. She edits at Flash Frontier: An adventure in short fiction and Blue Five Notebook, and is the founder of National Flash Fiction Day. She is assistant editor, international, of the Best Small Fictions series; other recent projects include Flash Fiction International (W.W. Norton) and Voyaging with Kids (L&L Pardey). http://michelleelvy.com/