Lawrence & Gibson Publishing, RRP NZ$30.00, Contemporary Fiction
Content Warning: spoilers and graphic content.
Trauma in fiction is commonplace; conflict is the driver of story. Sexual assault and rape have become entrenched in fiction of all kinds – an online search brings up articles titled ‘Why is there so much rape in Fantasy Fiction?’ A search for Booker Prize-winning novel Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee bring up an online search result list of several academic essays with titles like ‘Rape and Silence in JM Coetzee’s Disgrace’. It’s almost a trope: only it’s far too brutal and too damaging to be reduced in that way. At the beginning of Sprigs by Brannavan Gnanalingam there’s a content warning, letting you know what’s coming up. I know a few people might stop reading then, and I believe that’s the point. Gnanalingam is asking for your consent to tell this story.
This sensitivity and insight are characteristics only a few of the characters in this novel possess. The story is set over a few weeks in September, 2018, and the novel is broken into four parts: The Game, The Party, The Meeting, and The Trial. The Game section starts on a Saturday afternoon, with a Prem 1 final between two fictional Wellington secondary schools, Grammar and St Luke’s. We dive straight into the world of the St Luke’s team, weaving through the minds of their coach, the players, the parents, the principal, the girls from sister-school Simeon College watching from the sidelines. The scholarship player, Richie, poached from the state school for his rugby skills, stands out from his private school peers with his considerate nature – and his ethnicity. It was his mind that I wanted to inhabit in this part of the novel, but it sweeps from one perspective another, moving from character to character like the rugby ball is passed between players. The game ends, the after-party begins.
I recognise the party. I was at these parties ten years earlier than Priya and Liv and Jess, but they don’t seem to have changed much, only the cell phones now have cameras. The same boys drink and leer, the same cars park in the paddock. The same rumours the following day, too – who did what to who, which girl ended up comatose in the shower after simultaneously vomiting and shitting herself. Boys from these parties who once barked at girls they thought were unattractive are now married with children.
At Gnanalingam’s party, the teenagers drink and feel out of place. Nobody seems sure of themselves – the curse of adolesence. They mingle and hook up. A young girl, drinking for the first time, blacks out in the corner. This is how The Party section ends, with a young girl who ‘felt sleep taking over, a brief respite while another upheaval took place in her stomach’. Then, something happens. A violent, masochistic sexual assault. The details of the actual assault are never told directly – it’s described, obliquely, later in the book through differing viewpoints, so as a reader we don’t understand how the situation went from a sleeping girl to a gang rape. And does it matter that we don’t know how it happened? Do we need to know the details, who did what when? Gnanalingam’s novel makes clear that these facts are unnecessary. The rape happened, and there are no excuses.
The Meeting section continues in the same way, swinging from one character to the next. We never hear from the victim in this section, the longest of the book. We work our way through more characters – journalists, a police officer – and wade through more from the teachers, the principal, the students of St Luke’s. The omniscient voice is competent and gives the sense of the rippling effect of any action. The use of this style is particularly effective in certain scenes, such as the Fight Club created by the Year 13 students at St Luke’s, although at other times it isn’t as compelling, and more than once I found myself thinking how Gnanalingam could’ve structured the book slightly differently. The Slap by Australian writer Christos Tsiolkas came to mind, where eight characters all tell a single story, giving us differing and raw narratives that maximise the personal, because this is when Gnanalingam’s writing is strongest – in the moments his writing pierces the skin of the characters.
And then: The Trial. The final section of Sprigs. Here, in a marvellous spin, the point of view drills right into the voice that we have been waiting for the entire time – the victim. All the noise and information gathered in the first three sections has been gathered like wood to build a bonfire and when she begins to speak, the spark is lit. The victim says, ‘It’s my story,’ and in this section, and only this section, is that true. When writing in first-person, Gnanalingam’s writing flows and grows incandescent with heat. But you can’t put it down, you must read on, and be burnt. The victim reclaims her story, her power, and the novel comes alive.
Even in a serious and dramatic story, Gnanalingam navigates the subtle ironies of life with an acerbic and dry wit. A joke about trying to fit in another fundraising for St Luke’s through the Old Boys’ association was a great example of his comedic timing: how to add another to the long list that includes the ‘…old boys’dinner, old boy’s darts night, old boys’ newsletter, old boys’ foundation, old boys’ midwinter dinner, old boys’ spam email, old boys’ bingo night, old boys’ spring dinner, old boys’ pool night, old boys’ commemorative annual jersey, and old boys’ autumn dinner.’ The joke is both bitter and also works to reinforce the issue with certain schools and how they raise boys. When the principal, Denver, looks back on his poor performance in a television interview, he thinks, ‘He should have said something about the school and its tradition and its aim to raise good, decent men.’ Denver means this statement. He believes this is what the school is attempting to do, and if the people in charge are so blinkered, then it seems that only something revolutionary will create change. Throughout Sprigs, the questions around masculinity and New Zealand’s culture are raised, but the novel doesn’t moralise. It examines and interrogates, and finds only slivers of good, so fine they are almost non-existent.