Warm heart and chill wind

South Is­land lakes are the set­ting of a lyri­cally told story with a lost and rue­ful cast.

New Zealand Listener - - BOOKS & CULTURE - By DAVID HILL

Afirst novel. From a “bou­tique ­pub­lish­ing co-op­er­a­tive”. (Watch that b-word, folks.) By a grad­u­ate of a cre­ative writ­ing de­gree course. That’s a con­tem­po­rary lit­er­ary trin­ity

right there. Framed in a sen­su­ously ­re­alised and fre­quently ­an­thro­po­mor­phised ­set­ting of South Is­land lakes, near Kurow with its square mown lawns and twitch­ing cur­tains, Thalia Henry’s nar­ra­tive moves among an­other three­some, of bruised pro­tag­o­nists.

We have Delia, bereft painter and sculp­tor in Oa­maru stone; Luke the worm-eat­ing drifter; Jane the model, her per­sonal and pro­fes­sional lives full of poses. Let’s add He­len the mum, who has her own deco­rous anx­i­eties.

They’re all flee­ing, avoid­ing, deny­ing in var­i­ous ways. Just about ev­ery­one is or has

lost. They’re alone, from their first day at school, in some cases. They strug­gle to re­late, es­chew em­pa­thy. Terms of en­dear­ment are ab­sent. Smiles are scarce, and mostly rue­ful.

So, a plot where the warm heart glows, or where the chill wind blows? Sen­si­bly, it’s a bit of both. ­Char­ac­ters do start to reach out, mostly with their ­fin­ger­tips, though there’s a rather en­dear­ing ­com­mit­ment on a bi­cy­cle built for one, plus a semi-rec­on­cil­i­a­tion of apolo­gies and skinny-dip­ping.

A blood­ied eel coils through the story. The above bi­cy­cle is one of the ca­su­al­ties

in a pretty hec­tic fi­nale of scars and vomit, gun and snow, hawks and hos­pi­tal.

Henry is also a play­wright, and her di­a­logue here is lu­cid and springy. We could do with more of it: the novel is so closely writ­ten that it some­times feels as if the au­thor is step­ping through mine­fields; so painstak­ing that it’s ­oc­ca­sion­ally an­gu­lar and awk­ward.

Yet it’s a re­ward­ing book to read at­ten­tively. There’s lyri­cism; ­fidelity to emo­tional tex­tures; strik­ing ­close-up ren­der­ings of a bed of stones, a ­hi­er­ar­chy of san­dals, the mul­ti­ple blues of a lake.

And it’s ded­i­cated to the au­thor’s mum and dad. Very com­mend­able. So is a good deal of Be­neath Pale Wa­ter.

Thalia Henry: lu­cid, springy di­a­logue. BE­NEATH PALE WA­TER, by Thalia Henry (Cloud Ink, $29.95)

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