The Curious Story of Harris and His Near Death Experience written and illustrated by Nicholas Williamson.
Salem, Oregan: Yacob & Tomas (2016).
RRP: $30. (NZ only, p&p included; orders: firstname.lastname@example.org).
Reviewed by Anna Smith.
One of the greatest story-telling devices of all time, the quest of a man in search of himself – a ‘small’ man no less – features a series of naif-style hand-painted illustrations linked with spare, suggestive prose. Harris, whose life lacks something, is haunted by wolves. His inner demons stalk him with pricked ears and a full set of lupine teeth. Although a psychiatrist suggests offering his heart to the wolves, Harris makes little progress even after undergoing a series of tasks including yoga, meditation, and embarking on a trip to India. The flight across the sky goes wrong and Harris finds himself falling into a near death experience where ‘Uncle Howl and Aunt Pepsodent’ (great names for two menacing angels) meet him at the gates of heaven. The only time this book slipped out of character for me was when a ‘cool dude called Jesus’ instructed him to get back to earth and face up to his ‘issues’. Probably it’s a matter of taste whether the reader lets this, or the fact of a conventional resolution to the near-death experience, affect their reading pleasure of Williamson’s story. In all other respects, his is a whimsical allegory that ‘directs us,’ as Michael Springer writes on the back cover, ‘to the heart of the matter’: that is, to the emotional and spiritual emptiness that currently haunts individuals and cultures.
Springer himself is a Christchurch-based artist whose shamanic-inspired paintings have, I believe, impacted on Williamson’s naif-style illustrations. Shaun Tan is another Australasian artist and story-teller for adults and children whose energy is reflected – or at least, accords with – The Curious Story of Harris. The publishers, Yacob and Tomas call it a ‘children’s book for adults’. I put this judgment to the test by asking two young but sophisticated readers of 8 and 12 for their opinion. Interestingly, both of them called Harris ‘weird’ and both refused to explain further.
One can hardly call this cross-over fiction then: a book that all ages can read and ‘get’. Despite its appearance, Harris contains metaphysical reflection too enigmatic for many younger readers. The question remains: why are adults turning to the naif for their reading pleasure? Is it because adult tropes and narratives have become conventionalised; incapable of really exploring the depths of human pleasure and despair? Is it because socially adults have become regressive in order to retreat from the demands of a vacuous lifestyle based on unlimited consumption? Whatever the response, The Curious Story of Harris provokes the adult reader to face their wolves from the trenchant perspective of an unlikely and world-weary child.
Dr. Anna Smith (University of Canterbury) teaches children’s, young adult and supernatural fiction. She has published work on Margaret Mahy, Keri Hulme, Julia Kristeva, Ben Okri and Julia Morison, among others and the novel, Politics 101: A novel (CUP: 2006).
First published takahe 89