Northern Rock Light by Justin Eade.
Feilding: Rangitawa Publishing (2016).
Reviewed by Jessie Neilson.
This is a collection of eighteen short stories, collating work from over twenty years, by Nelson-based writer and playwright, Justin Eade. A number of these stories have been previously published or produced for Radio New Zealand National.
In Northern Rock Light settings range from the agricultural and rural to inner city parks and crowded bars in the heart of the city in Aotearoa New Zealand. The reader’s proximity to each piece of action differs, with some stories narrated in first person while others take a step back with the third.
Many of the stories feature down-at-luck characters, and Eade shows his skill at replicating a range of authentic voices, especially those in the Kiwi vernacular. Some tales pit a lone man against the land or against his fellow human, as they struggle with varying degrees of success. Many are poignant: a hermit/man-of-the-land on a rare trip to town, dolled up in his best – and only – suit, aware yet entirely ignoring the jeers of those around him; or young Mickelson, valiantly attempting to make inroads into the hop and vine industry amongst the old, and bullying, hands of Motueka.
Eade hones in on the small features, bringing familiar New Zealand situations and landscapes instantly into sharp focus. In “Apples” the reader is situated in a Man Alone-type setting, surrounded by the smells and textures of the ever-shifting land, where a team is harvesting. The oily and sweaty toil drenches, and combines with the natural course of the seasons. As a participant narrates, nostalgically, ‘It’s the smell in apples that gets you. Pungency of chemicals on leaves, damp rich earth rising on a fresh slice of morning air, the juice of fallen fruit mushed under tractor wheels fermenting in the long grass …’ (p 7).
Or in “Guru Bob”, where the reader is situated in church, listening to Pastor Polk’s salvation sermon, aware or perhaps not of the ‘wolf in amiable demeanour’ (p 24). Insidiousness creeps. Intoned is a message, that ‘Some people have seared their consciences, put themselves beyond normal human reach’ (p 26).
A particularly memorable story is “The Fear of Germans”, where an old man, permanently scarred by war memories and personal events, is able to see beyond binaries of good and evil and right and wrong and find the humane and common decency in young German, Klaus.
While the majority of the stories here look to the underbelly in varied instances of ever-plodding survival, a sporadic more light-hearted piece provides buoyant relief. “Last Moments of a Failed Skydiver” displays wry black humour. “All’s Fair and Golden” plays with narration and perspective, ostensibly, as an inanimate object takes over and reimagines the scene in the town centre of laid-back Takaka.
The cover of this collection is outstanding: in muted colours a yacht scours through the foaming waters towards a small lighthouse, referencing the short story “North of Rock Light”. This piece stands alone and apart from the concerns and settings of the others. However, considerable problems exist within the content and design. The font is off-putting and there are a number of typographical errors which could have been avoided with careful editing. In the excellent short story, “Green Bullet Cuts”, the main character is interchangeably Mickelson and Mickleson, and not by design. (Over 50 instances of the name Mickelson, and about 20 of Mickleson). Furthermore, though the short stories are listed on the contents page, the year of each is omitted, so it is impossible to know if these are in chronological order or follow a formal design. A bit more direction would help situate the reader better in relation to these impressive stories, which all carry great traces of the sights, smells and distinct muckiness of the Kiwi way of life in all its mundanity.
Jessie Neilson studied English at Otago and also holds qualifications in the areas of second language teaching and library and information studies. She has taught international students here and abroad. Jessie is a regular reviewer for the Otago Daily Times and works in the University of Otago Central Library. She has broad interests in matters literary.