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THE RED QUEEN
By Gemma Bowker-Wright
I kept looking out my bedroom window as I finished The Red Queen. I live in Kelburn, where the final story in the book is set. Outside my window, there’s this enormous kowhai tree. A spring gale was throwing the little yellow buds against the glass. It was getting dark, but through the branches of the kowhai tree I could make out all the jagged, narrow streets of Kelburn, the same streets where many characters in The Red Queen happen to live.
It’s not a familiar feeling. A lot of people tend to shy away from books and stories set at home, around the corner, up the coast, or in the dense New Zealand bush. But it’s also the best feeling. The Red Queen is a beautiful book of short stories. Its close proximity to all the places you know, the places where you grew up and went on long car trips with your mum and dad, is startling at first. “Oh – wait, I walk past there every day,” is not something I can say about James Joyce, or Hemingway, or Woolf. It’s refreshing.
This is Gemma Bowker-Wright’s first collection of short stories. She lives in Wellington (she’d have to – you can tell she knows it by heart) and did her MA at Victoria. Her stories take us all over New Zealand, usually by car, mapping a constellation of points of memory (for her characters, and for us – multiple stories reminded me of driving around the South Island in the rain with my parents when I was little) from Greymouth to the Sounds, across the Cook Strait Ferry, up the Kapiti Coast, up through volcano country. The native bush, or the New Zealand ecosystem, is always looming. Some characters skim through this landscape on the open road. Some venture deep inside it at night, collecting giant wetas and putting them in boxes. It’s not surprising, then, that Bowker-Wright also has a bachelor’s and master’s degree in Science. Threads of intricate scientific detail run through the book. Passages of visual, textual description are precise and palpable as if pricked alive by electric shocks: in one story, the horizon is “cutting hills into half-moons”, and one character thinks the Tongariro Crossing is just like “walking across the moon”.
Not every story is quite so alive, if that’s not a wanky way of describing it. The opening story, for instance, didn’t gel with me. Neither did a couple of ‘love stories’ (for lack of a better category). The protagonists sometimes lost me in their unwillingness to open up to the reader. But other stories struck me speechless, even ones that were slow to get going: like ‘Cowboy’ with its painfully vivid characters, the texture of the landscape in ‘Rock Formations’ and ‘The Takahe’, the chilling ending of ‘Missing’. (After I read ‘Missing’, I blinked rapidly, then had to go back and read it, put it down, and do some breathing exercises).
In ‘Endangered’, insidious male violence in a small-town community rushes very suddenly to the story’s surface. It’s like something that’s been buried, suddenly dug up by accident, then shoved back below ground where it wrecks lives from beneath the surface.
In ‘Back to the Sea’, Bowker-Wright’s prose unravels slightly. Not in a bad way. It unrolls like a wave uncoiling, loosening and expanding to fit the mythical stories told to the child by his great-grandmother. When told to remember them, the boy says he’ll try but it feels impossible, “like holding back a mountain of water with my arms.” Somehow, there are stories in this book where characters can’t say the things they mean and everything is tightly wound, coming to the surface in quick, precise bursts – and then stories that are like “a mountain of water”, expanding and contracting at the same time.
I don’t know how to pin down this writer’s brilliance. There’s a new brilliant thing cropping up in each story. There’s this final passage of the final story, ‘Katherine’, where the character goes outside at midnight and looks around. The garden seems to come alive. It’s so poetic and so lyrical but so precise, lucid: “The verandah awnings look like petrified lace in the darkness.” Petrified lace – goddamn. Moments like these remind me of something out of a Mansfield story, perhaps one set in Karori. Moments like these make this debut collection truly striking.