Hamish Clayton's Wulf was memorable for its structural virtuosity and shifts of reality; its blend of the immediate and emblematic. The same qualities distinguish his excellent second novel.
It begins near the end of the 20th century. The Big One has finally hit; on a strangely warm July afternoon, the Wellington Fault tears asunder, and New Zealand's capital is wrecked. Just as Wulf stepped between hemispheres and millenia, this narrative sets two sides of the world in juxtaposition, as a writer returns from England, summoned by an anonymous phone voice, to search the ruined city for meaning.
It's a city that's physically specific: Bowen St; Aro Valley; hills of "wild verticality"; the broken buildings of Courtenay Place, where the protagonist - already disorientated before he walks the eviscerated streets - meets enigmatic Grace and a little girl who won't leave her father.
It's also unsettlingly elusive, silent by day but feral by night. People encountered for the first time are nonetheless familiar; the narrator feels pressed down "by gravity's heavy wing", yet disembodied and floating; the wheel of the seasons pauses. Domestic and apocalyptic stand side by side.
Relationships drift and shift. Past promises jolt against present destruction. A shuttle of vivid yet riddling cameos includes walks in the wild wind, a photography exhibition where landscape becomes myth, a rent in the landscape and a moon strangely out of position. Ambivalence and enigma pervade everything.
Then comes the second section, where once more Clayton takes us into different spaces and times. It's a tale of ghosts: British explorer Colonel Fawcett vanishes in the Amazonian rain-forest; a 1930s art historian watches his wife shimmer out of a mirror; the earlier narrator becomes subject and even object, his story outlined in a biographer's detached prose, his claim to literary fame discovered inside an old cardboard carton in a Frankfurt Museum. Solidity cracks and slides apart again.
The result is remarkable. The Pale North is short, but it's daring, fascinatingly textured, intellectually compelling, rich with metaphor and emotional resonance. Motifs of identity and connection glint through it; the actualities of life and language are constantly tested and rearranged.
A few images inflate towards the purple. There are a couple of exits where you almost hear a background of swelling strings. But this singular, gauntly beautiful work shows an author writing with power and maturity. There should be decades more of Hamish Clayton's writing to come. Excellent.
The Pale North
by Hamish Clayton
(Penguin Books NZ $30)