Book review: A horrifying twist transforms the novel into a tense domestic thriller
Robert Kitchin / Stuff
Author and lawyer Brannavan Gnanalingam.
There is always satisfaction in having read a book that starts out as one thing, but defies expectations to turn into something else.
Brannavan Gnanalingam’s captivating seventh novel, Slow Down, You’re Here is such a book.
Kavita is stuck in a dead end marriage with Vishal; they are parents of two young children and Kavita is the main breadwinner. The couple’s hopes and dreams have turned to helplessness and despair thanks to a toxic mix of systemic racism, the global financial crisis and their own hesitation.
They keep their heads above water – just – but it’s a survival shot they make and the outlook looks bleak. Vishal is caught in a slow dance with inertia and depression while Kavita is intensely frustrated, mostly with Vishal rather than the outside influences that have contributed to them being where they are now.
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While Vishal has sunk into weariness, Kavita still has a spark and wants more from life. So when an old flame unexpectedly offers her a week in Waiheke, she doesn’t know if she should accept and, if she does, when – if – she would return.
Seeking respite from her present, Kavita looks to the past and how it could create a new future but, as Gnanalingam writes, it’s nostalgia with an upside. A pointed.
All of this makes Slow Down, You’re Here feel like a kitchen sink drama, where a woman searches for love and a new sense of identity, but it’s not fictional Eat, Pray, Love ( for one, Kavita’s tight budget means there’s barely enough money for Waiheke let alone Italy, India and Indonesia).
Instead, a gruesome early twist transforms Slow Down, You’re Here into a tense domestic thriller. In just 200 pages, uncomfortable questions are raised about the necessities of survival, power imbalances, and how our destiny is controlled by forces beyond our control and whether we can regain that control.
Gnanalingam does not overlap adjectives. The clear, almost sober writing of the novel is one of its strengths; the same goes for the juxtaposition of two different sets which further accentuates the questioning, the tension and the palpable feeling of dread. He originally wrote a first draft of this as a movie script and the story has a cinematic quality where you can vividly imagine the settings and characters.
Still, despite the sunshine and the supposed expanse of places like Waiheke, if this were a movie, it would have a dark side with an angst contained in gestures, facial expressions and voice tones.
Reviewing Gnanalingam’s sixth novel, Sprigs, Uther Dean wrote for The Spinoff that Gnanalingam had created a whole world and felt like he was “showing us a window into it”. There’s a similar vibe created in Slow Down, You’re Here. As a reader, you feel like a voyeur, but you can’t look away when you’re increasingly drawn to thinking about power imbalances – macro and micro – and the nature of relationships where true desire lies in the idea rather than in the reality. of a particular person or relationship.
It’s smart, from Aotearoa here and now, and provocative in its politics and personal concerns. Gnanalingam can cover a lot of ground, but he surely does it with skillful, subtle, and sometimes awkward humor.
His last three novels have made the long or short list of the Ockham NZ Book Awards, while Sprigs won the 2021 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Mystery Novel. I’ll be disappointed if Slow Down, You’re Here isn’t in the running for the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction at the Ockhams next year and entirely thrilled if Gnanalingam (finally) goes home with the award.
Slow Down, You’re Here by Brannavan Gnanalingam (Lawrence & Gibson, $25) is out now. This review originally appeared on Kete Books (ketebooks.co.nz) and is reproduced here with kind permission.