Dark, sparse and chilling. There’s something intriguing in the way contemporary New Zealand literature revels in societal unease; the way it rejects the ‘land of milk and honey’ illusion and, instead, delves into the tension, violence and horror of the suppressed. Chad Taylor’s Departure Lounge thrives on this unease.
Although the blurb may read as a mystery-suspense novel, Departure Lounge avoids traditional narrative conventions. The story follows the life of small-time thief, Mark Chamberlain. Things appear to be running smoothly for Mark; ‘business’ is going well, he has a steady girlfriend, he’s one step ahead of the law. Yet the memory of Caroline May won’t leave him. Twenty years earlier, schoolgirl Caroline disappeared from her nice suburban home. Her disappearance stunned the community and the mystery has quietly haunted Mark ever since.
When one night out stealing, Mark chances upon her photograph, his life once more obsessively circles the loss, unanswered questions and pain of Caroline’s disappearance. Reports of the 1979 Mount Erebus crash sporadically intersect the narrative. Was Caroline May a passenger on the ill-fated flight as rumours suggest? Or was she similarly lost in a vacant landscape – like the Erebus victims, nameless, lost and unreachable?
Throughout the novel, relationships are not fully explained and the uncertainties of the past are not neatly unravelled. And herein lies the magnetism of Departure Lounge. It’s not a novel with answers. Rather than presenting a readily consumable narrative (the sort of Heat-And-Eat of the literary world), Taylor’s novel requires a bit of thought on the readers’ part. At only 218 pages, Departure Lounge can be read in a day. But the inconclusive plot will force the reader to decipher metaphoric links and ponder over themes long after the cover is closed.
Taylor is careful not to give away too much information. The characters’ motives, thoughts and emotions are never overtly discussed. Instead, like L.A. Confidential, scenes are constructed in a conglomeration of succinct observations in the smallest detail: “The kitchen counter was serving chips and fritters. The barman was pulling beers on a fake woodgrain handle.” And so it goes on for a paragraph or two. As a result, the novel exudes a cool, detached tone. While some may find the unfeeling noir style a little tedious, it neatly echoes Mark Chamberlain’s own estranged psychological state.
Departure Lounge has rightfully received impressive reviews abroad, earning a spot in Esquire magazine’s ‘Cult Book of the Month’ column. Its stark, clinical style and dark themes may not be everyone’s cup of tea. But for those who enjoy the bleakness of Maurice Gee or simply crave a thinking-man’s book, then Departure Lounge is for you.
Random House NZ, RRP $34.99