Julian Novitz was the winner of the New Zealand Society of Authors Hubert Church Best First Book Award for Fiction in 2005 and the BNZ Katherine Mansfield Award for short fiction three years later. These days, he resides in Melbourne.
His new novel, Little Sister, provides the reader with a puzzle. As one character says of another writer, it is not just about solving the mystery on the whodunnit level but about entering the mysteries of life itself ("human corruption and moral cowardice"). This could also be applied to Little Sister.
Three teenage friends form a tightknit group at school. Will and Shane are good mates and outsiders to different degrees. Will falls for Eileen (and she for him) and then Shane falls for Eileen (and she for him). This love complication is one of the many threads that take the mystery to another level.
The three teens are part of an accelerated English class taken by Mr N. Books, and so books and such-like bubble away as a narrative flavour enhancer. Books and ideas about books are keys to the world for the students, but more importantly small keys to Novitz's narrative. Again, this takes the mystery to another level.
The novel is divided into four sections, each pursuing the complex reactions of a character to the catastrophic event that launches the book (Shane, Will, Eileen, Mr N). Rather than tracking the clues to find the identity of a murderer, we are tracking the paths that lead to that act of violence and the paths that lead beyond it.
The first section (Shane) is a cracker. The narrator is running in the dark, having lost his bearings and has no memory of what has just happened. For someone who has a habit of getting everything out of order, he is now desperately trying to produce order from chaos by snatching at flashes of the night in question and of the past.
The flashback to the house that Eileen's dad built for his family, grand but never lived in by his wife and daughter, provides a white-hot image. It felt like a key and sinister pivot - the absence and presence of the father figure.
Mr N. Books had compared the sword and scabbard in Morte D'Arthur as the balance between yin and yang that results in chaos when broken. So yes, the lives we encounter in Little Sister are out of balance.
While there is a murder mystery (of sorts), there is a much murkier mystery at the heart of the book: the little sister. This is the child Eileen wants to protect but it is also the child Will and Shane have not met. She is an intellectual exercise that I wasn't entirely sure I got.
If this is a mystery novel that aims to take us to the pulsating layers of life then the little sister keeps the narrative operating in a realm of ideas rather than flesh and blood experience.
Which might be the point of the book.
Paula Green is an Auckland poet and children's author.