Rising to the Surface, by Latika Vasil (Steele Roberts Publishers, 2013), 128 pp., $29.99
Rising to the surface is a slow process. There is furniture to navigate, the world beyond the window to consider and the difficult decision of doors; should one anxiously open them or leave well alone. The underwater world, depicted on the cover of Latika Vasil’s debut collection of short stories, portrays these possibilities. While some book-cover illustrations seem to lack any link with writer’s intent, Michael Soppit’s image ‘Swimming in the Living Room’ is apt and enticing. It is a definite precursor to the lives lived beyond the cover-door.
These short stories utilise the economy of the genre in terms of numbers of characters and episodes of action, but the limited time span is only present in a measured sense. It is not to be found in a more involved reading of the text, as Vasil manipulates time. She alters the expected experience of time by connecting us so deeply to her characters that before we know it, the story ends, and we have abandoned our own sense of time in favour of each character’s version.
Elasticity of time is important, as most of the characters’ lives revolve around distinct daily routines. Routines relate to the time of day. Routines add substance to their day. Time is pivotal to the point of it all, for Vasil’s characters are out of the ordinary. Unable to fit into the practices of mainstream suburbia or present themselves as models of middle-class norms, they exist in separate, highly introspective, individualised worlds. In their worlds, routines can become so detailed and considered that time stretches and slows. In the outer world, though, time can shorten and snap.
Mark, in ‘Open Home’, has thirty minutes before prospective buyers might arrive. He has his routine to work through: rooms to be sprayed, windows to open, business cards and complementary notepads to be placed on the hall console table. Despite the familiarity of his routine, all is not well with Mark. Change in his professional life is a possibility. Sweat trickles down his back. He worries about sweat on his face. He worries about worrying, and it is when these aberrations from routines strike at Vasil’s characters, that their worlds begin to wobble.
‘Surviving earthquakes and other disasters’ begins with the narrator’s early morning routine: ‘There are two things I always do in the mornings. The first is, I make a pot of Earl Grey tea. The second is, I read the newspaper online.’ ‘Birthday’ opens with the time: ‘Five o’clock. Anne would be home soon.’ ‘A Sliver of Sunlight’ begins with the monthly staff meeting at 2 pm. In ‘Chris Buys a Diary’, she is doing just that: purchasing a book in which to record the details and expectations of time.
Any attentive reader is also placed at the mercy of time, made strongly aware of it. The intensity of each of these stories demands a rest before carrying on. This pause enables a consideration of your personal space before re-entering the architecture of the book, with its many nervy inhabitants.
There are a number of individuals for whom routines become obsessions. Phil Chance, in ‘Postcards’, has hundreds of postcards, which are filed in boxes and carefully categorised. Part and parcel of his postcard focus is his occupation as a postman. His lone figure delivers mail around Wellington hills, where the odd mad dog roams, along with the occasional presence of wild winds from ‘the south’. The fresh air, the quiet, the thinking time, the extraordinary views and Phil’s artistic temperament are, perhaps, more than a blind nod to former Wellington postie James K. Baxter. For Phil Chance, as for most of the other characters, the plot develops when the unusual usual, changes.
Considered as a collection, Rising to the Surface is largely unified and cohesive, although one story stands slightly apart. ‘The Sand Mandala’ lacks, to an extent, the tight editing and smooth unobtrusive flow of language that is so distinctive elsewhere. Explanations serve to curtail the slip into fluctuating other-worldliness here, whereas elsewhere in other stories the immersion convinces. For the main protagonist of ‘The Sand Mandala’ to possess an inner harmony and to be on the verge of obvious insight, is a trait slightly at odds with the general dis-ease that binds the rest of the collection together.
Aside from thematic links, story order has been given careful consideration. Variations in circumstances provide fresh perspectives. Three of the most memorable stories concern young characters in differing circumstances. ‘River’, the name of both the story and the character, concerns a twelve-year-old boy who finds an unlikely friend in a lonely neighbour. Emerging from a depressive malaise she supports the boy in his interest in chemistry. She feeds him, listens to him and buys a kitten for each to share. Just when River and his neighbour adopt each other, though, the course of their lives changes. We are left to consider the notion of truth, and justifications for its manipulation.
Ashley is a teenage girl who arrives in Wellington for an audition with a prestigious dance company. In ‘The Ballet Trials’, she stays with her sister Jenny, and the story’s narrator. The routines of their house have to alter to accommodate her practising, eating and sleeping. While Jenny’s life is unaffected by her sister’s arrival, it is a nerve-wracking time for the narrator. For her, Ashleigh’s influence is unexpectedly pervasive.
Use of dance continues in the story ‘Jelly’. Sam does his signature floppy dance, as if his bones are made of jelly. His mother laughs. She understands. She is the type of adult who can’t ride a bicycle, can’t skate and can’t swim. While she hates making a spectacle of herself, Sam doesn’t escape attention. With his strange questions and jelly dance, he catches the eyes of his teachers. An assessment is recommended. Sam’s definite likes and dislikes place him out of the ordinary. He could be gifted, explains his teacher, or he could be … Whatever it might be is left unsaid. For the teacher, Sam is a boy who needs a label in order to slot in to the education system.
Vasil’s empathy for young people is not surprising, given that her biography reveals she has a PhD in educational psychology. Such professional training in close observation of difference and personality types is well utilised in her stories. For her characters, detail abounds as a means to control time and thoughts. To counteract the emptiness that often accompanies a different way of experiencing the world, prolonged observation of places and people helps to fill the gaps. The male passenger in the story ‘Transit’ tries to guess the profession of a neighbouring passenger by close study: a floral dress, lilac cardigan, odd hairstyle, thick black eye liner – she could be a real-estate agent. But she definitely isn’t. Later, he is taken for a pilot. But he definitely isn’t.
Vasil’s stories evoke sensitive amusement and enjoyment, and promote a positive regard for personal difference. They immerse the reader in a realm of creative curiosity. Underwater immersion, diving beneath the surface of social etiquette and expectations, is what Latika Vasil offers us. Rising to the Surface grants us a privileged opportunity to float into unique private worlds, with the sensation of being unencumbered by the weight of judgement, or the passing of time.
JENNY POWELL is a Dunedin writer, reviewer and teacher who has published four individual collections and two collaborative collections of poems. Her most recent collection is Ticket Home, published in 2012 by Cold Hub Press.