Emily Braunstein Brookes
The Below Country, by Nicholas Edlin (Penguin, 2011) 275 pp. $30.
‘You’ll never see the real thing,’ an American civil student mired in 1980s South Korea tells the narrator of The Below Country late in Nicholas Edlin’s second novel. ‘You think you know a thing, then the bastards move the frame. I’ve spent ten years of my goddamn life here and I don’t know a thing. I don’t know nothing but shadows and fucking silhouettes.’
This arresting scene comes thick in the third section of The Below Country, and it is when the book is at its best. Here Edlin writes his theme into the mouth of a character, and The Below Country feels for the first time like the novel it has always wanted to be: a mystery set in world where nothing is quite what it seems and our narrator isn’t sure she can trust her own mind. It is a disorienting sequence of misdirections that evoke Dennis Lehane or Richard Condon, with characters sinister in their graciousness, and lashings of magical realism. If the whole novel were like this, and if Edlin were able to play the mystery through to a shocking reveal, The Below Country would be a real treat of a psychological thriller. But Edlin, a deft writer of thoughtful, refined prose, seems never to have settled on precisely what kind of book he is writing, making for a novel of uneven tone and frustratingly lacklustre intrigue.
Part one of The Below Country holds great promise for an emotionally charged mystery, a story of loss and redemption. But in order to succeed in this genre, Edlin would need to drip-feed his readers just enough information so that the final reveal feels neither predictable nor bewildering. Unfortunately, here he pours too much, too fast, too early.
The central mystery of The Below Country centres on the ironically named Walker Glass, the American father of our narrator, Mae, who went to the Korean war as an official army photographer. In Korea, Something Very Bad happened, something so bad that it led Walker to flee with his family to the ‘desolate outpost’ of 1950’s Christchurch – ‘a place so austere and repressed it could have been invented by Arthur Miller’ – where his wife died young and Walker, once a successful author of detective novels, wrote an obscure tome the significance of which much is debated but little understood. As the book opens, Walker has recently died, and Mae’s marriage, career and mental stability are in tatters following the death of her only son. She travels from Auckland to Christchurch to go through her father’s things and finds his journals from his time in Korea, which leads her on a physical and psychological journey to understand her father’s dark past and in turn the events that shaped her own life.
We are in Auckland in 1988, and Edlin seasons his story with pitch-perfect, naturally placed observations — such as the vignette of the Freeman’s Bay-dwelling yuppie who has recently discovered camembert — that both set the scene and create small comic diversions from the escalating intensity of the tale. A set-piece scene at the evangelical Baptist church where Mae’s husband is seeking refuge from his grief is evidence of Edlin’s acute observational skill and talent for slowly building tension around the everyday.
But then Edlin does something very odd. On page 66 of my nearly 300-page volume, he gives an enormous hint as to the nature of the Something Very Bad that happened in Korea. Indeed, the hint is so large that anyone with some knowledge of America’s role in the Korean War, or a curious mind and access to Wikipedia, would pretty much know at this point what Walker Glass was involved in. Thus unburdened, Edlin moves the setting from 1980s New Zealand to post-war Seoul, and the tightly coiled narrative quickly begins to unravel, the tone switching to something between a tale of childhood nostalgia and a war novel. Stereotyping and clumsy attempts at period-setting now take over from subtle observation: thus, hard-boiled New York Times reporters refer to themselves as ‘hacks’, chain-smoke and say things like ‘The truth will always come out, Smyth! You can’t hide from the truth!’ while 14-year-old Korean boys speak English like upper-class characters from an Evelyn Waugh pastiche (‘My behaviour now was most impertinent, Miss Mae. Most disrespectful.’), and Edlin behoves himself to drop a couple more bomb-sized hints about Glass’s unconscionable wartime activities.
We next join Mae, determined to uncover her father’s mysteries, on her return to Korean in 1988, where preparations are underway for the imminent Olympic Games. Here she meets the speaker of the opening lines, among other compellingly unsettling characters, and the book, finally, begins to fly. Cringe-worthy ‘Miss-u Grass-u’ renderings of Korean accents aside, this is The Below Country at its most lively, fluid and compelling. Who exactly are Mae’s embassy-appointed official escorts and why is she never allowed out of their sight? How is it that every hotel she stays in is exactly the same, right down to the doorman? Could the people from Mae’s past that keep turning up actually be ghosts? Edlin really hits his stride here and the reader is left wishing that he had worked to give the whole book this level of tension and excitement. As it stands, the hard work he puts into this section feels betrayed by the predictability and banality of the story’s resolutions. We know so much already that the distracting red herrings glare off of the page , and the reveals when they arrive have been so heavily foreshadowed as to be jaw-droppingly mundane.
If only Edlin had just shifted the frame to provide that depiction of shadows and silhouettes that he is striving for. Instead at each turn he dispenses with the frame and begins afresh with a new one, making for a novel that cannot fulfil its promise.
EMILY BRAUNSTEIN BROOKES is a graduate of Victoria University of Wellington and a former editor of Salient. Her reviews have appeared in the Dominion Post, the Listener and most recently the Times Literary Supplement. She currently lives and works in Paris.
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