Dark Jelly, by Alice Tawhai (Huia Books, Wellington, 2011) 237 pp., $30.00
With an epigraph by the French existentialist Albert Camus, Dark Jelly by Alice Tawhai promises to challenge readers from the very first page, as she introduces us to a world of nocturnal lives and daytime dreams, paranoia and superstition, skewed enemies and chemical friends, and the stains of ink and time.
Across the stories we meet people incarcerated through crime, bad luck, or choice; although the reasons vary, names are always significant. In the opening tale, ‘Big Y, little y’, Yolanda sits in a sanatorium battling a trio of voices, Once, Twoce and Threece, which emanate from electrical sockets; but even their abuse is easier for her to deal with than her husband, Ty, and the painful history of which his presence speaks. Meanwhile, the jail narrative ‘Roses are Red’ hinges on the disparity between the prisoner’s perception of himself as ‘Caesar’ and the wardens’ view of him as ‘Johns’. He invites danger by carelessly conflating the red-headed female ‘screw’ in his thoughts with his girlfriend, Rose. In ‘Ice’, a woman’s husband briefly returns home from jail with an all-white dog, Ice, and a declaration of alcoholism. Although the only time the wife spent in prison was visiting her husband, we can see that she was just as incapacitated as he was during his time inside: her life froze. Since neither characters are identified for readers beyond the prosaic ‘he’ and ‘she’, we are given to understand that their shared history with ‘Ice’ is all that links them, now.
Many of Tawhai’s characters are emotionally incarcerated by secret desires. The eponymous hero(ine) in ‘Pluto’ spends most of her waking time in a doll factory, where her odd name is under constant discussion. Her workmate’s snarky comment that ‘it’s not even a planet’ takes on deeper significance when Pluto announces she is pregnant (again). Gradually it emerges that Pluto was not born a woman. Her fake pregnancy echoes the fake femininity she spends her time constructing; the fake babies she spends her time assembling; and the very real childhood abuse she spends her time suppressing. Similarly, the title character of ‘The Inexact Science of Fredericka’ follows an exacting set of daily rituals before she sets about doing her part to save the earth from the tyranny of over-breeding, in her case by way of hunting rabbits. But the story suggests that it is not Fredericka’s pronounced fear that rabbit-tunnels will bring about the collapse of the earth that drives her obsessive compulsion, so much as her innate fear of the hidden, especially within the tunnels of her own memory.
In each case, Tawhai carves out the contours of solipsism with dextrous authority. Some of the narratives are driven by silence: people who can’t talk, people who won’t talk. The kaleidoscopic ‘Freak’ centres around a nocturnal street urchin who keeps company with Ed ‘the Hobgoblin’, Ed’s ‘panther’ Wolfman Jack, ‘the vampire’, and Valyrie, a space ‘princess’ to Freak, but known more simply as the local whore to ‘The Fat Man’. Though Freak is steadfastly mute, we view his world through the vocabulary of his thoughts, gleaned from childhood stories about rockets and spaceships, and by which means he is ultimately taken advantage in a brutal act of betrayal. In contrast, the intentional muteness of Vaughn in ‘Rainbow Warrior’ is a gateway to a fantastical inner life where dolphins provide maternal comfort, rainbows yearn to be touched, and private planets ache to be colonised; after all, this one is doomed by global warming. For Vaughn, gobbling his dead mother’s prescription pills is a manner of remaining in some sense linked to a fellow human being. Otherwise, Vaughn’s own bodily heat is a sign that the earth is melting, and his own noiselessness reflects the silent suffering of the earth.
Though Tawhai is careful to hint rather than to diagnose, her characters exhibit recognisable symptoms of mental or physical disorders: autism in Vaughn, for instance, or the effects of Foetal Alcohol Syndrome in Freak. Their perception of events is told with both surrealistic precision and authorial empathy. In the case where the leading character does not suffer directly from any kind of disorder but instead orients their life around someone who does, the narration leans towards making sense of things, rather than simply perceiving them. The mute senility of a care home-bound mother is met with unyielding hostility by Siobhan in ‘Lucky’. Though she resigns herself to her daughterly obligation, Siobhan resents that her formerly headstrong mother has degenerated into such a soundless automaton. Her mother was abrasive, opinionated and difficult before the dementia struck, and her silence now affects Siobhan more than anything else. As a coping mechanism, she adapts her mother’s Irish obsession with luck. She is able to offset her anger at her mother’s living death onto her siblings, the always-lucky but uncaring Finny, and the always-unlucky but over-caring Seth.
For Mahinaarangi in ‘Where I Married the Sea’, clinging to superstition is a way of navigating the unknown future, and reclaiming the past. Mahinaarangi lives with Niamh in a cliff-top house she inherited from her Nan, and earnestly narrates tales of mermaids washing up on the nearby shore, and patupaiarehe nesting under the cliff. In the face of Niamh’s scepticism, Mahinaarangi argues that since Niamh can conduct experiments in which white roses can be transformed to pale blue, and red roses to dark blue, ‘then why can’t a fish be mixed with a woman?’ Niamh responds: ‘You can’t tinker with human beings. It’s ordinary people who want to change each other, not scientists who want to change them.’ Mahinaarangi’s desire to reunite with a mermaid is clouded by her desire to marry Niamh. In the end, she gets her wish, but not as she anticipated.
Some characters reject imaginary identification in favour of inking records of their (desire for) change. Margaret-Ann is so naïve in ‘The Electrician’s Apprentice’ that she thinks of Jesus Christ as a potential ‘lover’, and misses the significance of the hardcore pornography her boyfriend Ivor hangs around the house. She mistakes Ivor’s sadistic objectification of her for love. Eventually, she exalts in the marks he makes on her, such as his use of a soldering iron ‘to make marks like love bites on the backs and sides of her neck’. The scars Ivor leaves are the tattoos of his love. With its inevitable finale, the story is a harrowing but deeply intimate portrait of an abused young woman. In parallel, the black clown figures that March’s boyfriend Aaron obsessively draws on the walls of their bedroom in ‘Fun House’ confine her to their co-dependent relationship. Aaron seems otherworldly, ‘a crystal meth clown’, but with a stubborn rigidity. When he suddenly disappears, March mediates her grief through the drawings. She adds a lighthouse and balloons to his bedroom-wall clown gang. Only a failed home invasion, which is cut short when the intruders are scared off by Aaron’s clowns, gives March the impetus to literally smash her way out of his hold on her.
Probably the most functional male/female relationship is to be found between Puhi and Santana in ‘Men’s Business’, if only because each knows their place in the balance of their marriage. While her husband is constantly off ‘up the mountain’ on some vague but sacrosanct ‘men’s business’, Puhi does her best to make ends meet for their children, La Boy, Tawera, and Sweetpea. When Santana returns after a three month absence, Puhi is dismayed to see him ‘split into two like a cell’, as a young girl with a newborn baby materialises beside him. Although Santana promises he is working on the breakthrough for local Maori – ‘We’re making decisions! This is history girl!’ – he is clearly having his bit of fun on the side. Still, Puhi accepts her duty to provide, and willingly takes on her new charges. The stove that the family required three years ago was followed soon after by the blonde Sweetpea. Now that the house requires a new washing machine, not even the intrusion of General the goat will stop Puhi carrying out the ‘women’s business’ needed to survive.
There are a generous twenty-five stories in Tawhai’s collection, and not a single one is throwaway or filler. The stories are certainly challenging, but they are also made accessible by their brevity and clarity of expression. The reading experience is slightly marred by some proofreading errors. Nonetheless, the stories flow together so seamlessly as a whole that Dark Jelly would make an excellent film if the right New Zealand director got their hands on it. The style is an obscure mixture of stark realism and magical realism, with additional elements of folk, fairy, and classic children’s tales. Tawhai also re-uses certain words and images over and over in different contexts, from the word ‘velvet’ to the image of red hair, twisting and contorting the intensity of meaning with each use. To that end, the title: ostensibly a play on the danger which lurks in a ‘dark alley’, ‘jelly’ is variously a young girl’s genitalia, a Hansel-and-Gretel trail, and a shortened reference to jealousy. As her third collection demonstrates, Tawhai is a desperately underrated writer who deserves far more attention in the New Zealand literary scene.
AZURE RISSETTO is currently a PhD student in the English Department at the University of Auckland.