Calling an author "versatile" can imply width rather than depth. But poet/dramatist/musician/short story writer/story teller/novelist (pause for breath) Apirana Taylor manages to bring the same lyricism, unsettling truths and mischievous subversion to every genre he works in.
This powerful, idiosyncratic novel follows the damaged, dysfunctional lives of Mack and Puti (her name means "flower", a touching irony) on the streets of an anonymous grimy city. It's a squalid existence.
They share a malodorous shack; they stink and dribble. Their clothes come from op shops. The morning shower is a flop in the swimming baths, dishwashing a handbasin in nearby public toilets. Booze, dope and ciggies fill their days. Neither can bear the other, nor bear to be without them.
They've ruined everything, including themselves. They're hard to love. Yet they read (usually books stolen from the public library), speak sometimes like Old Testament prophets, clutch at moments of pride and decency, acknowledge and mourn their losses.
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The contrasts and contradictions with which Taylor packs them drive the plot and raise them almost to emblems.
So even as they disintegrate, they have moments of rapture. Broken beer bottles, dog shit and filthy, sweaty blankets vanish as they lie coloured by moonlight, are surrounded by cicadas and birdsong, hear God "drive his cattle across the sky".
It' a virtuoso display of emotional and stylistic range. The other characters are equally diverse: angelic child; patronising anger management consultant; visionary healer; street debris such as Greta the dumpster scourer, doom-sayer H2S, Mack and Puti themselves before they fell from "the security of mother's wings".
Taylor indulges in the odd caricature, but mostly presents his people with clarity and compassion.
The protagonists reel through disgust, devotion and dependence towards an ending that is the finish for one and a tenuous redemption for the other, with a glimpsed world of light.
Taylor writes in an almost unique fusion of savage narrative threaded with incantations, song and poetry.
Desperate violence segues into daring dark comedy. There's the occasional florid flourish but it's a story transfigured by understanding and pity.