Beneath Pale Water by Thalia Henry (Cloud Ink Press, 2017), 244 pp., $29.95
On the back cover of Thalia Henry’s debut novel Beneath Pale Water, Owen Marshall offers the following endorsement: ‘Powerfully evokes the landscapes and seasons of inland Otago.’ To the cynic, those nine words might read like a nice person struggling for something – anything – nice to say:
Strong plot? Um …
Memorable characters? Hmm …
But the landscape!
To the cynic I say: Hold your tongue!
Beneath Pale Water contains three memorable characters set into ever-tighter orbits in an intricately patterned plot played out across the four seasons. We begin in summer and with Delia, a sculptor dealing with the sudden death of her boyfriend Ben. She hails from the coast but lives in Kurow, Ben’s home town, carving him over and over with the help of a female life model – though is it to exorcise or exercise the memory of him? When she meets Luke, a very South Island kind of drifter – rusting bicycle and cherry-stained hands – the two damaged souls each find something to adhere to.
Luke, a Kurow boy who was a couple of years behind Ben in school, jokes about having won the lottery once too often for the joke not to be true. But it was only second division: just enough to leave his domineering father’s cherry orchard and camp around the lakes and rivers of inland Otago, shooting rabbits and eating the occasional worm, for an indeterminate period of time. He’s a loner, but he’s a lurker too. Twice he finds himself inside Delia’s house without anyone’s knowledge, observing her or her mother.
In time we learn that Delia’s life model has a name (Jane) and that she’s central to the plot in more ways than one. Delia believes Ben had an affair with Jane, but he died before she confronted him about it. Meanwhile, Jane has had a thing for Luke since forever and, though they slept together once, a couple of years ago, it seems she might lose him to Delia, who by this time has been admitted to the psych ward at Wakari Hospital.
The novel spends time inhabiting each of Delia, Luke and Jane’s perspectives, as well as Helen’s (Delia’s concerned mother) and Alfred’s (Luke’s father). The chapters from the perspective of the parents help round out the story, though they lack the narrative urgency of when we are closest to our three damaged and possibly deranged dramatic leads.
Beneath Pale Water began life as a play entitled Powdered Milk, and the first quarter of the novel teems with references to milk powder. It is there as a literal additive to the plentiful cups of tea the characters make for themselves, and is also deployed in more figurative ways – like when Delia dreams of milk powder:
falling like snow and mingling with the lake, turning it off-white. She dreamt she was swimming, the cloudy water surrounding her, warm and thick, becoming one with a sky of white sheets and devouring her.
The substance is also closely associated with the dust created when Delia makes her sculptures from Oamaru stone (though the colour is not solely linked to Oamaru; the dust, we’re told is ‘coloured like the stones lining the lake at Aviemore’). Sometimes, both substances appear to be invoked, as when Luke’s face is ‘powdery looking, as if he might dissolve’. Or later, when the seasons change and another whitish substance begins to fall from the sky, forcing Luke to consider sleeping somewhere other than in his tent. This is a novel where items become images and these images take on totemic importance, luring the reader into the destabilised and dissolving worlds of its characters.
At the sentence level, the writing both helps and hinders this dissolution. Henry employs an elevated, formal-yet-flowery prose – an approximation of Owen Marshall’s learned, teacherly voice but without the same music to it. At its best, the writing melts away and we are immersed in the deeds and doubts of Delia, Luke and Jane. Too often, however, the language feels starchy and dislocated. Characters don’t drink from a bottle, they ‘gorge its contents’. When Luke, in flashback, picks up a piece of paper, ‘he noted it to be a lottery ticket’. This may be how some people write, but it’s not how they think or speak.
This formal voice coupled with the relentless personification of matter and abstractions leads to further missteps. Of Delia: ‘Sleep was reluctant to claim her but when it finally did wish to visit she didn’t let it.’ At the crucial moment of Delia’s lakeside crisis, the one that sees her committed to Wakari, we are told: ‘She snuggled into her jersey, the wool clandestine against her, so furtive her shivering skin ceased to acknowledge its existence.’ In isolation, one could argue that personifying both the wool and her skin bespeaks Delia’s rapidly declining mental state, though such linguistic tangles clog the reading unnecessarily.
But there’s much to admire in the writing, too.
Take this passage, from one of the occasions when Luke the Lurker is loose in Delia’s house:
Clothes were in piles surrounding the bed. The duvet was pulled back and an imprint of where Delia had slept remained. A wide-brimmed sunhat hung over the mirror of her dresser. He didn’t wish to disturb the outline, so, when he crawled in, he lay in the same spot, as if she lay there too on top of him, or beneath him. He closed his eyes, content.
The adjectives have almost dropped away, the personification is in check, and we are left with action and imagery, reminiscent perhaps of Ennis and Jack’s shirts in Brokeback Mountain, but also shot through with creepiness, if not a benign insanity.
Or this passage, with prose as crisp as the scene it is describing:
The winter landscape at Aviemore was a different character to the ones Delia had met in summer and autumn. The thin blanket of snow blended with a white sky, rendering outlines indistinguishable. Ice crunched beneath her boots, spreading cracks and shards. The seconds, leading into minutes, were excruciating. Her fingers had become numb and her nails, when she pressed against them, didn’t spring back with colour.
Henry doles out thanks in her ‘Acknowledgements’ page to at least ten people involved during the book’s gestation (thesis mentor, manuscript assessor), editing and publication. One is left wondering, however, to what greater pitch the novel might be tuned if only it had landed in the lap of a more ruthless/generous reader. Because there is so much in this novel. The haunting characters. The complex plot. The arresting, totemic imagery. The moments of plain-spoken beauty.
And Owen Marshall wasn’t lying. Henry does powerfully evoke the landscapes and seasons of inland Otago. Indeed, having finished the book, Lake Aviemore, Kurow, Omarama, Aoraki and the Ahuriri River linger just as strongly as Delia, Luke and Jane.
CRAIG CLIFF is the author of the short story collection A Man Melting and the novel The Mannequin Makers. He was the 2017 Robert Burns Fellow at the University of Otago.