Lloyd Jones' playful, perceptive novel originally came out a decade ago. Its reappearance now completes Text's publication of his entire back list - and what an accolade that is.
It's a closely rendered narrative of New Zealand small-town life (or existence) that gradually morphs into other, unsettling and/or magical shapes.
While struggling town New Egypt tries to re-invent itself as a theme park, we're moved through a hangover in London, an attractive but absconding father in Australia, a marriage that's dwindled to a kitchen table where one partner spends days clipping pictures from magazines.
"(S)trange places for a life to end up."
AdvertisementAdvertise with NZME.
Jones' fascination with the edgy and emblematic quickens scenes and sentences. A cannonball from Waterloo; adolescent boys furtively questing for porn; jigsaws of places that don't exist; hungry car-thieves who mistake Aids-infected blood for raspberry jelly: things constantly crackle with paradox. Emotions and relationships glint like smashed glass.
We meet the well-intentioned Mr Mayor, whose obsession with the improbably, gloriously named Gondwana Project has eroded his life. The returned husband performs his own erosion, as he moves an entire hill in wheelbarrow loads to win back his wife.
And we meet Alma, dump-dweller, ex-rat-catcher, portrait-painter, whose female clients become his subjects, in classes where "certain women, no names, try to hold in their stomachs". Rooted in domestic detail, yet always liable to soar into the fabulous, the narrative winds through all sorts of transformations towards reverie, reconciliation, and an epiphany of "just as you are, please".
It's an emphatically satisfying denouement. Just as couples in Here At the End of The World We Learn To Dance found that the tango offered ways to unite or sever them, so in this novel, the men who take up brush, palette and canvas start to really see their partners.
Lloyd Jones has written recently that plot now matters less to him in his writing; that the exploration of language itself is becoming more of a preoccupation. The pleasures of this swooping, sensuous narrative make you hope there'll be room for both strengths in his future fiction.
• David Hill is a Taranaki writer.
Paint your wife by Lloyd Jones (Text Publishing $29.99) Reviewed by David Hill