Where We Land by Tim Jones (The Cuba Press, Novella Series; originally published as Landfall by Paper Road Press, 2015), 75pp., $22; The Everrumble by Michelle Elvy (Ad Hoc Fiction, 2019), 107pp., $18; Soul Etchings by Sandra Arnold (Retreat West Books, 2019), 174pp., $19.99
A new arrival to Aotearoa from America after my partner landed a job at the University of Otago, I attended my first New Zealand poetry reading at the Dog With Two Tails in Dunedin this August. The night served as my introduction to the Kiwi literary scene. Brian Turner was the featured poet and I still remember one of his poems vividly. ‘New Zealander: A definition’ reads ‘Born here, buggered it up’. My first thought when hearing that poem was how I could replace ‘New Zealander’ with ‘American’ and the poem would still resonate. I wondered how many people around the globe could replace ‘New Zealander’ with their country’s moniker for citizens. When reading the three fiction-esque books in this review, I saw them as loose responses to Turner’s poem. While they each take a different approach in form and worldview, they share a concern with how we can respond now that we’ve ‘buggered up’ the world.
Tim Jones’ Where We Land, originally published in 2015, is a foreboding cli-fi page-turner, a cautionary novella. Set in a ‘not-too-distant’ future Auckland, Jones builds a world in climate catastrophe that has driven eco-refugees to New Zealand. The book alternates chapter-by-chapter between its two protagonists on a collision course – Bangladeshi refugee Nasimul Rahman, whose ship has been torpedoed by the book’s powerful New Zealand Navy, and a woman named Donna, who is new to the volunteer ‘Shore Patrol’ tasked with catching, and killing, refugees along the coast.
Jones deftly world builds through dialogue and details that underscore language’s impact on how we relate to one another. In chapter one we learn that Rahman’s son died of cholera ‘in the camps’. The third-person narrator does not explain ‘the camps’, rooting us in a world where the term has become, once again, commonplace. In chapter two we meet Donna, who is endearingly foul-mouthed. The narrator, in third-person close, divulges details through Donna’s frustrations such as the ‘cancer bullshit’ that deprived citizens of their cell phones. When the leader of the local Shore Patrol, undertrained Big Bob Sergeant Wilson, who Donna calls ‘the groper’, briefs Donna and other first-time patrol members, he calls refugees by the dehumanising term ‘infiltrators’. This dialogue enables Jones to paint, without exposition, his new New Zealand as a land ruled by xenophobia, sexism, a feared Navy and nationalism.
In this context, readers befriend Donna, who is scraping together a living working a shop stockroom. She indifferently joins the Shore Patrol to earn a few extra bucks. Times are hard in this eco-stricken Auckland. For Jones, the novella’s success hinges on the reader identifying with Donna and her problematic position. While Rahman’s character remains flatter than Donna, this is both a consequence of the novella form and by design. Jones poses his polemic through Donna.
He wants readers to grapple with difficult questions. What happens when global warming meets nationalism and scarcity of resources? How does language condition our responses to human suffering? Donna’s relatable, easy foul mouth and difficult situation ensures that readers cannot simply assume, ‘yes, I would help the refugee’. Jones makes us embody the situation, where it seems that struggling to get by competes against helping those on the brink of death. While Jones, a climate activist himself, wished action would have been taken before it made sense to republish this book, Where We Land is still a timely and gripping novella, one that does the stunning work that fiction can do – suspend our disbelief enough to help us rehearse our response to future tragedy.
While Jones offers a plot-driven scenario for us to ponder, Michelle Elvy’s The Everrumble uses hybrid poetic-prose to transform how we listen to the world. What the author calls a ‘novel in small forms’ follows its silent protagonist Zettie and her supernatural hearing ability from childhood throughout her life. The bulk of the text is narrated largely in close third-person, which simultaneously provides precise depth into Zettie’s interiority and global perspective. Interspersed are Zettie’s journals, literary epigraphs, illustrations by cover artist Eyayu Genet and a prose poem, ‘Dreamscapes’, which further root us in Zettie’s strange, hypersonic world.
On page four the seven-year-old protagonist is a precocious child hiding under a blanket, and we learn ‘this is the year Zettie stops speaking’. We learn that she can hear the wingbeat of a mosquito from miles away and that she is paralysed by Shamu’s wail as the whale is captured in 1965. Zettie recognizes this power of super-hearing as a gift that allows connection to the Earth. Readers see the attached burden that causes her to retreat and escape the world. This redemptive escapism wends through Elvy’s participial and gerund-laced sentences, at times lush description and at others bordering on over-indulgent. But they serve to heighten the aura of magic around her protagonist. Through listening and translating sounds inwardly, Zettie cultivates a secret sense of joy, a way to process the joint traumas of being sexually assaulted by her uncle as a young teenager and the environmental trauma of humans degrading the globe. Zettie turns to literature, translation, dream and language to make sense of what she hears, but she dares not speak.
The non-linearity of this collection gives Elvy’s ‘novel’ the feel of moving through a book-length poem, engendering feelings and sensations as primary, relegating plot to the background. This structure highlights meditative insights, such as when Zettie asks midway through the book, ‘Why do we have to know the why? The because is infinite.’ This line speaks to Zettie’s processing of her personal trauma. It offers a way for Zettie and the reader to move through the world trapped in global warming. This book is a journey that revels in the infinite because. Our subjectivity, our perceptions are indelibly woven through our cells. Elvy’s book and her character ask us to celebrate and nourish these emotional muscles at the risk of strangeness. Perhaps learning to hear the world’s everrumble is the first step in learning how to live in harmony with, not opposition to, the Earth.
Whereas Zettie endears herself to the reader through innocent eccentricity, Sandra Arnold’s many characters in the vivid flash-fictions of Soul Etchings lure us with their mundane flaws, desires misplaced in the trappings of a patriarchal, environmentally crumbling world. Arnold introduces her characters in soul-etching moments that may be quotidian but are often traumatic. As foreshadowed by the creepy doll-filled cover, the stories often take a swift turn from the mundane – a boy finding and befriending an injured bird – to the thrillingly and disturbingly horrific – the same boy’s mother chopping off her abusive boyfriend’s head. This movement happens within a few paragraphs in these flash pieces. In snapshots of a world representative of present-day working-class Aotearoa, Arnold reveals how inescapable and dangerous patriarchal ideals are to today’s world. Toxic masculine ideology impacts children of all genders in the collection. The ideology is linked to climate change in a series of flash-horrors in the middle of the book, from ‘Climate shift’ to ‘The girl with green hair’.
What enables Arnold to tackle big ideas in such little space is her skill with the sentence. In her best stories– and there are many in this book – no breath is wasted. She effortlessly alternates long, hypotactic sentences with the staccato of parataxis to shape mood. She knows when to break the sentence, as she does in ‘Mr. Snowman bring me a dream’, which is comprised of fragments, punctuated prepositional and gerund phrases to create a filmic, memory-like reliving of the child protagonist Marcia’s accidental murder of a childhood bully. What ordinarily might be material for shock-value fiction becomes a poetic indictment on the violent culture we have built, how we pass on our sickest parts, subconsciously, to the next generation. That is, only if we don’t acknowledge the horror present in our day-to-day lives. Arnold’s fictions remind that to truly affect change we must first grapple with the violence faced in our day-to-day interactions, and the toxic ideals we inherit from our patriarchal forebearers – people we may still love.
While these three books are wholly different in form, style and message, they speak to each other. I carry all three of them with me weeks after I read them. As I hear news of the migrant camps continuing in the US, I think of Jones’ world, how it’s far too close to reality. When tramping on Otago Peninsula, I imagine I’m Zettie trying to decipher a bee’s buzz from the distant crash of waves. Each time I notice defensiveness arise when disagreeing with a colleague, friend or my partner, I remember Sandra Arnold’s fictions, and how even thoughts can be remnants of an aggressive cis-male inheritance. These books are fulfilling and quick reads of their own accord. But they do speak to each other. It takes more than one worldview to help us muck through the world we’ve buggered up.
RUSHI VYAS recently relocated from Brooklyn, NY, to Dunedin, where he is pursuing a PhD in literature at the University of Otago. He was named a finalist for the National Poetry Series (US) in 2018 and 2019 for his first full-length manuscript of poems. Recent poems are forthcoming or have been published in 32 Poems, Boulevard Magazine, Down in Edin magazine, Alaska Quarterly Review, Adroit Journal, Waxwing, Tin House and elsewhere.