by Angelique Kasmara
(The Cuba Press, $37)
Isobar Precinct, Angelique Kasmara's assured debut novel, opens in Symonds St Cemetery in central Auckland, one of the book's many vivid Auckland settings. Lestari Ares, her tattoo parlour partner Frank, and teenage waif tag-along Jasper are preparing to install Frank's latest art project, a life-size statue of St Michael, amid the gravestones and gnarled tree roots.
They're interrupted by what seems to be a sudden, violent skirmish between two men that produces "bright curtains of [blood], spraying out in a fan, saturating the thicket". When our three compose themselves and look, incredulously, at the scene — no blood, no disturbed vegetation - and no sign of the two combatants. The only evidence is some phone footage but the police can't act without any physical evidence at the scene.
This disturbing, fantastical incident is just one of the puzzles Lestari is trying to unpick: there's the recent spate of burglaries at their parlour, the disturbing deaths among the homeless and street workers of the neighbourhood and rumours about a powerful new street drug with unusual side effects. She must also deal with unsettled aspects of her own life, from the disappearance of her father when she was a teenager to her illicit relationship with a married detective.
The murder in the cemetery launches Lestari on a search to make sense of it all - and suggests the speculative edge to the novel's visceral realism. Summarising too much of the plot would deprive readers of the many pleasures — the turns of phrase, the sharp characterisations and the uncanny way Kasmara presents some of the more magical moments — including time travel — in a way that renders it plausible and clear.
Primarily set in 2015, with flashbacks to key points in Lestari's life, back to the year of her father's disappearance, Isobar Precinct is grounded in Karangahape Rd — Auckland's most colourful thoroughfare. Kasmara is particularly adept at capturing the essence of a place. This is K Rd as Lestari is leaving work:
"The street's switching to night mode, a DJ at Verona bleeding trip-hop, artists and opportunists guzzling pinot gris on the doorsteps of a gallery, the slow trickle of human flotsam down the steps of St Kevin's to the Wine Cellar, the hiss and thump of short-order food being served up – pizza, pad thai, char kway teow, lamb kebabs, inhaled at flimsy outside tables, petrol fume spritzer on the house."
Tough and determined, Lestari is the heart and soul of the novel, as well as the engine. Kasmara has created a narrative voice that is cool, assured and always pitch-perfect. Kasmara's instincts for pacing are perfect, too. There's never a data dump of information. Instead we learn about characters the way we do in real life, slowly, with bits revealed over time, with each new fact rendering that person — and the story— more complex.
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Isobar Precinct reads nothing like a debut novel. It's true that it arrives with an impressive pedigree: an early draft was awarded the University of Auckland's Wallace Foundation Prize in 2016 and it was one of three finalists for the 2019 Michael Gifkins Award. But that doesn't adequately explain the virtues abundantly present in this sparkling, stylish novel.
- Reviewed by Tom Moody
Tom Moody is an American writer and editor; he lives in Auckland. A longer version of this review is on www.anzliterature.com.