by Stephanie Johnson
Stephanie Johnson once revealed her ambition to narrate a novel from the point of view of a dog. The dog in question was to be Kupe's and the journey was to be the legendary adventure that has shaped all our destinies. In Everything Changes, Johnson's 12th novel, the dog (though not Kupe's) at last gets his day.
When Muzza murders the neighbour's blue-eyed Himalayan cat, it soon becomes apparent that the cat's bloody demise is just one in a series of violent and troubling events in the novel and one of a long string of reprehensible acts for which there is little retribution - but little resolution either: every character in this novel drags behind them the dead weight of a life that they have not lived well.
Muzza's crime goes unpunished but the neighbourhood disapproves. Col, the dog's owner, persuades husband Davie they need to change addresses and alter the course of their unhappy life. With pregnant daughter Liv in tow, the couple buys a dilapidated motel and tearooms in the Brynderwyn Ranges. Col plans to transform it into "Skyreader's Retreat", a lucrative luxury getaway.
This move proves far from idyllic. An oppressive air of neglect and abandonment permeates their new home. Col and Davie have weathered 33 years of tumultuous marriage but the death of their disabled first-born son and the years of grief cushioned by drink and weed that followed have critically damaged the family dynamic. Muzza's protective custody of Col keeps her husband and daughter at bay.
Liv has grown up wild and hard, reluctantly tethered to her parents by her need for a home and support for her unborn baby. Perhaps the most original and complicated character of the novel, Liv's interactions are marked by calculated obscenity, her casual cruelty juxtaposed with an internal narrative of doubt and fear and with her unexpected capacity for love. The shocking circumstances of her child's conception are not kept a dark secret but are also never entirely exposed. Liv deals with her own bad behaviour simply by leaving it behind.
Liv's unnerving callousness contrasts with Choirmaster, a 17-year-old boy serving out a two-year sentence of home detention on the nearby farm of his uncle. The security anklet that tracks and confines Choir prevents him from forgetting or escaping his own sad history. Employed to assist Davie in rebuilding the retreat, Choir discovers that Muzza is none other than his own beloved Kaos, left behind during his forced relocation.
Its momentum aided by short chapters and changing points of view, Everything Changes is tragi-comic in its tone and delivery. Its litany of social issues as well as generational chasms, parental failure and loss; marital delusion and disenchantment, form a fraught emotional topography. The occasional absurdities of the novel's action and populace provide welcome respite and the result is something of a literary macchiato, a blend of bitter darkness lightened by a dash of soft steamy froth.
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*Rachel O'Connor is a novelist and creative writing tutor who lives in Auckland. A longer version of this review will appear on anzliterature.com on March 10.