Beneath Pale Water by Thalia Henry.
Auckland: Cloud Ink Press Ltd (2017).
RRP: $29.95. Pb, 248pp.
Reviewed by Shelley Chappell.
Thalia Henry is a writer and teacher from Karitane, Otago. She won a place in the New Zealand Young Playwrights Competition in 2007 for her play, Sound of a Car, and in the 2008 Dunedin Write Out Loud Festival for her play, Powdered Milk. She reworked Powdered Milk into novel form when undertaking a Masters in Creative Writing thesis at AUT (2015). Beneath Pale Water (2017), her debut novel from Cloud Ink Press, is a revised version of Powdered Milk.
Beneath Pale Water is the story of a young female sculptor, Delia, who is struggling to recover from the loss of her partner, Ben. She has a strained relationship with her mother, Helen, and with the young model she sculpts, Jane. The story sparks when a young man who bears a resemblance to Ben comes into her life: Luke, a local boy who has been gone for several years, living an itinerant hand-to-mouth lifestyle, returns to the area with his bike, tent, and nomadic ways, creating change and conflict. The novel is structured in four parts (divided by the seasons) and takes place in inland Otago, a setting which allows the author to explore common New Zealand literary themes of isolation and our relationship with the land – its appeals and its dangers.
The genre of the novel, beyond that of literary fiction, may be hard for readers to pin down. The blurb describes it as ‘social realist and expressionistic’, which Henry explains in an interview with Ruth Todd on PlainsFM to mean a playful social commentary depicting modern life with the objective of portraying ‘how dysfunctional people’s lives can become due to misunderstandings or people’s different objectives’. Fellow Cloud Ink Press writer, Helen O’Neil, describes the novel on the BooksellersNZ website as a ‘sort of gothic, sort of dreamy romance’. However, it is perhaps best classed as a psychological thriller – a story which invokes feelings of suspense and anticipation by focusing on the mental and emotional instability of its characters.
To say much more about the plot or characters would be to ruin the novel’s tension and suspense – which make for quite a gripping read. Readers are invited into multiple characters’ perspectives and can expect to explore complex and interesting psyches and relationships, as revealed through unfolding action and timely flashbacks – although some characters are more well-rounded than others. The plot paces forward to a tense climax and a resolution which may satisfy or may not convince some readers. Either way, the journey is worthwhile.
Shelley Chappell is a literary analyst and writer of fantasy fiction and fairy tale retellings for children and young adults. She is the author of Beyond the Briar: A Collection of Romantic Fairy Tales (2014) and a variety of short stories.