Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley by Danyl McLauchlan.
Wellington: VUP (2016).
Reviewed by Patricia Prime.
The hero of Danyl McLauchlan’s second novel Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley is named Danyl. In this sequel to his first novel Unspeakable Secrets of the Aro Valley, Danyl returns to the valley after a spell in a psychiatric institution. He has many questions to which he seeks the answers: What happened to his girlfriend? What happened to the manuscript of the novel he was writing? Why are the residents of the valley disappearing? Would it be a good idea to give up his medication?
Aro Valley is more than a place, it is a state of mind. The threatening madness that Danyl stumbles across is frightening. Here we have the hero returning to a desolate valley, a missing mathematician, a strange bookshop, a powerful hallucinogen, a glamorous council bureaucrat, a cryptic map, frightening tunnels and an orgy scene and much more leading to the most mysterious mystery of all.
Part 1 begins with the hero’s return, where the first mystery takes place. His former girlfriend Verity’s house is abandoned, neglected, cupboards bare and her journals burned and dumped in the bath tub:
Why did she leave? Danyl didn’t know, but he would ask her when he found her. Because, he now vowed, he would find her. She was in trouble, he was sure of it, and he would help her, and in her gratitude she’d forgive him and take him back and everything would go back to normal.
The deep, life-threatening reality of what Danyl discovers is hilarious, yet scary. Here is the description of the mathematician:
A squat male figure stood in the doorway: he stood aside and gestured to Danyl to enter the room beyond him. As he turned, his face met the light, revealing youthful pallid features ravaged by acne. It was Ann’s missing student, Sophus the mathematician.
In Part II it is the last day of summer. ‘The morning sun shone on the happy crowds bustling about Aro Community Hall.’ But the applicant is standing outside the council offices, checking his reflection in the window. ‘It showed a bald man with a neatly trimmed beard, a dimpled smile and too-bright eyes. He bared his teeth at the glass to make sure there wasn’t any food stuck to them.’ The secretary opens the door to him and reveals a man who
appeared impossibly handsome: slender with smooth tan skin, a strong jaw, dark jewelled eyes; but on closer examination he was oddly proportioned.. His head was too large for his body; his arms too short. He looked like a figure in a digital photograph that has been improperly resized.
McLauchlan’s humorous description of people, places and events is exceptionally skilful. Many of his jokes are made at the hero’s expense. Here, for example, we see Danyl in his role as apprentice archivist:
he was halfway across the room and the frozen wave of papers and folders stood at head height. It needed to be barricaded with boxes and braces jerry-rigged from broken shelves. It creaked and groaned as Steve laid out grids of documents across the floor beneath its shadow, trying to make sense of chaotic bureaucratic intricacies of sixty years of community business.
Although Danyl learns from the documents about feuds, love affairs, pacts and betrayals, he comes no closer to discovering what he is seeking.
Through each chapter, the reader is urged to follow Danyl’s remarkable journey, with all its twists and turns, and to try and make sense of the weird stories, the horrors and strange characters. And this is what gives the novel its power: as each decision is portrayed, we understand the clues and piece them together, to try and make sense of the story. We begin to understand Danyl’s motivation while gradually moving towards a conclusion.
Sometimes we rely on the characters in the novel to carry the story forward, as in this passage, where Danyl’s side-kick, Steve, is imprisoned in a bath tub:
A short silence. ‘That’s classified. What’s important is that you get me out of this bath. Fast. We’ll need some tools. Bolt-cutters or an acetylene torch. They won’t just be lying around. You’ll have to search the entire complex for them. It will be incredibly dangerous. If Gorgon’s agents see you, try to lead them away from me. Now, quickly, buddy. Go!’
The novel is highly original, comic and farcical. McLauchlan handles his characters and their situations; their levels of dysfunction and tenderness, with aplomb. He covers a wide range of situations with dexterous humour.
Patricia Prime Patricia Prime, besides being a regular contributor to takahē, is co-editor of Kokako and assistant editor of Haibun Today. Patricia’s primary interest is Japanese short form poetry: haiku, tanka, haibun and tanka prose and she has published a book of collaborative tanka sequences called Shizuka (2015).
First published takahe 89