Isobar Precinct by Angelique Kasmara (The Cuba Press, 2021), 291pp, $37; The Time Lizard’s Archaeologist by Trisha Hanifin (Cloud Ink Press, 2021), 259pp, $30
‘If I could turn back time,’ sang Cher in her 1989 smash hit. ‘If I could find a way,’ she says, she would unsay all the hurtful words that had brought a sad end to her relationship. We can’t, of course, take back ‘all those words that have hurt’. Mere mortals and insomniacs especially are condemned instead to endlessly revisit the mistakes of our own history, impotent to avoid or undo the damage done by our younger selves. But what if we could? Just how far would we be willing to go to alter the fabric of the past, and therefore the present and future, of ourselves and those we love?
Angelique Kasmara’s Isobar Precinct, set largely in the niche world of Auckland’s Karangahape Road, offers just that possibility. Yet the novel’s excursions into the past contain little of the marvel or exhilaration that traditionally accompany the time-tripping of popular fiction or film. Instead, the process of time-tripping is fraught with peril and pain, both physical and psychological, which increasingly weigh down the protagonist, the tattoo artist Lestari Aris. Having found a way to turn back time, she travels between an increasingly fluid past and present in her attempts to reunite a family, seduce a lover, prevent a crime, rescue a friend, solve a murder—the list goes on. And this begs the question, where does one stop?
Isobar Precinct is a highly original, genre-bending cocktail of social realism, sci-fi, detective drama and fantasy, with a subtle dash of romance. The urban Auckland landscape that Lestari occupies is skilfully rendered, highly tangible and intensely real; Karangahape Road, the Symonds Street Cemetery, the Central Districts Mission and Lestari’s mother’s West Auckland suburb all spring off the page in visceral detail. These settings are convincingly populated by a diverse cast of characters, among them lost boys, medical researchers, sex workers and world-weary detectives, who variously support or complicate Lestari’s (and the reader’s) progress through a necessarily convoluted plot. The convincing realism of the novel’s environment makes all the more startling and dramatic its surreal premise: a highly volatile drug that enables its taker to revisit their past, which was originally developed to treat mental illness (and secretly, wantonly, tested on the city’s most vulnerable and transient occupants) is still in circulation. When Lestari witnesses a violent and bloody attack—only to have the evidence evaporate before her eyes—and discovers that both Jasper, the young boy she has offered refuge to, and Charles, her long-disappeared father, are involved in the drug’s underground experimentation and use, she sets out to connect the dots. By degrees she enters a version of life that flexes and reforms, along with her tattooed ouroboros, in response to each substance-induced voyage she makes. LSD has nothing on this.
Lestari is a pragmatic, almost prosaic, narrator, yet her hard-bitten tone is at odds with the emotional vulnerability she reveals in her private reflections. Despite the clear affection of her friends, colleagues and sort-of, almost lover—and their rather extraordinary willingness to engage with the new normality engendered when she shares her discoveries with them—a degree of detachment persists between Lestari’s social and interior selves. Perhaps this is authorial intent, cleverly setting up a character whose combined qualities of strength, self-sufficiency and sensitivity will allow her to achieve the status of super-tripper. She is one of the favoured few in a sort of frequent-flyers club who are able to successfully sustain the trauma dealt to mind and body during repeated journeys across time, unlike those mentally fragile individuals for whom, ironically, the drug was originally intended. The descriptions of these tumultuous passages between present and past are highly creative and convincing in their delivery, and while the uncomfortable side-effects of the journeys may deter the faint-hearted from partaking of such an opportunity, they remove none of the glorious appeal.
The fact that the sudden, short-lived appearances of these time travellers in Auckland’s streets, bars, soup kitchens and student parties go largely unnoticed by the other occupants provokes us to think about how little attention we actually offer to those we encounter in our self-occupied lives. While the novel touches on the murky ethics of pharmaceutical endeavours, perhaps most central to its impetus is this contemplation: the dangers inherent in social dysfunctionality and alienation, and the vulnerability that results when human community and connection are removed. In Isobar Precinct, Kasmara delivers a rich but bitter slice of city life, largely peopled by the disenfranchised, the mentally ill, the despairing and the disillusioned. Yet bound into the looping, sometimes bewildering, maze of the novel’s narrative is a clear message of determination. That if we hold on to those we belong to, persist in our care and concern for them—even when they are struggling, even when it gets ugly—we might save them, and ourselves, from the desolation of a life without love. As Lestari puts it:
Doing right by those closest to you: it’s moment by moment. Wing by wing. Sometimes, it’s more than you can stand.
Time moves at a very different pace, though just as unpredictably, in The Time Lizard’s Archaeologist. This is a novel whose characters are transported relentlessly between past, present and future, in dreams and visions that intertwine, yet are persistently unstable and fragmentary, confounding the efforts of characters to orientate, interpret and connect them. Appropriately, Jason, the central character who appears most consistently in the rapidly shifting narrative threads, is a psychoanalyst who specialises in the study of dreams. But his professional expertise offers him scant guidance as he is overtaken, and increasingly immersed, in the parallel existence to which his mind carries him. His family, already damaged and bereaved, can do little except keep his body alive as his spirit departs. At times he occupies a spacecraft searching the earth’s surface for its last vestiges of water, at others he shadows Aja, a woman struggling to restore the life source of a utopian/dystopian world, the fragile and mystical balance of which has been fatally disturbed by its peoples’ increasing greed for gold and coal.
Aja’s is a compelling world, evocatively drawn, laden with the minutiae of life and customs that are at once deeply familiar and entirely strange. But Jason never becomes part of that world, despite Aja’s ability to see him in it. And no sooner is the reader entirely invested in the outcome of her quest than we are whisked away, into a near future much closer to home. Here an older Jason, now widowed, lives quietly in a kind of Reality Plus One, debilitated by a deadly virus (whose symptoms mirror those of the illness threatening the population of Aja’s world), in a world almost entirely bereft of bees. Things, it seems, are bad all over.
There is, however, no time for readers to become comfortable in this version of the world, but then there is little reason to; it proves to be a savage and unhappy place. Fast forward ten years, and Jason, now in his seventies, dwells in a different kind of dystopia, though still with insufficient bees, and still highly recognisable to the reader in its diverse and distasteful manifestations of human misbehaviour. Here he is sought out by Griffin, a young woman who seeks to comprehend her own vivid dreams and visions. The world begins to fall apart in earnest, and we hurtle towards a suddenly action-packed climax, and the final, intense intermeshing of the disparate strains of narrative.
Slow to begin (it is, after all, a rare dream that retains the attention of anyone other than its dreamer in retelling) and heavily weighted early on by the emotional baggage of a family whose dysfunctionality seems to have little bearing on the future of the planet, the novel is nevertheless mesmerising in its evocative, sometimes magical descriptions of various imagined existences. The sensory preoccupation with light, heat, water and soil aligns neatly with the novel’s wider preoccupation with the fragility of the elemental earth, and the tragic inability of humans to recognise their role in its survival. Ambitious in its scope, the narrative defies traditional conventions of pace and form, which at times presents challenges for even the most willing reader. But its environments and activities, fantastic and realistic by turns, are delivered with sensitivity and flair, beautifully bringing to life the dreamlike worlds that so cunningly reflect back on our own. In The Time Lizard’s Archaeologist, Trisha Hanifin offers an engaging but chilling view of the place we might see, not only in our dreams, if we fail to harness the positive power of our imaginations and listen more closely to our planet.