Landfall Reviews

Instant Messages / Taking Wainui / Brain Graft

Carolyn McCurdie
Instant Messages by Laura Solomon (Proverse Hong Kong, 2010), 168 pp., $24; Taking Wainui by Laura Solomon (Woven Words Publishers OPC Pvt. Ltd., 2017), 138 pp., $15; Brain Graft by Laura Solomon (Proverse Hong Kong, 2017), 55 pp., np.

Laura Solomon’s fiction, poetry and non-fiction have been published widely, both in New Zealand and internationally, and have gained prizes in international competitions as well as shortlist placings both overseas and at home. Her range is impressive. Each of these three books displays her characteristic energy and inventiveness. Beyond that, I found them very different.

The young adult novel, Instant Messages, was joint winner of the inaugural International Proverse Prize 2009. It’s easy to see why. It’s lively, funny, the characters are strong and distinctive, the plot rollicks along with twists and surprises and steady, believable character development, and the ending is satisfying, with a decisive, brave move towards maturity on the part of Olivia, the main character.

Olivia is fifteen. By her own assessment, she’s a ‘social retard’. The story begins on Christmas day, when Mum announces that she’s leaving the family to live with her lesbian lover. Dad, an aspiring romance writer, copes badly. This is a family who copes badly in general and is not strong on providing emotional support. Olivia and her non-identical twin Melanie are essentially on their own, although from time to time everyone does try, in their own clumsy way, to look up and reach out from their self-absorption. Melanie prides herself on her worldly wisdom and provides Olivia with advice. Given that her sister drinks heavily, self-harms and attempts to find achievement in shoplifting, Livvy is understandably sceptical.

To protect her fragilities, Olivia has an elaborate system of hiding places and barricades. One is computer gaming. She spends much of her time building a game she calls the labyrinth, creating an alternative world where she feels competent. She takes pride in her ‘nerd’ persona, even the ‘social retard’ persona. From within these tough shells, she creates lists, some of which – Olivia’s Theory about Claude (her sister’s boyfriend), Olivia’s Theory about Nigella Lawson – are a mix of harsh judgement and shrewd insight. Olivia has a grip on things. So who cares what other people think (she despises their opinions); who cares that a gang of boys lies in wait to bully her daily (she’s a good runner, and anyway, it doesn’t hurt that much).

Solomon presents this wonderfully recognisable world of adolescent bewilderment and bravado, and adult bewilderment and incompetence, with great skill. She never loses her light touch. The style remains fast-paced and highly entertaining. Olivia’s caustic comments, as much about herself as others, the over-reactions, the inappropriate behaviour, especially by the parents, serve to leaven the pain with a ridiculousness that never tips over into caricature. Solomon’s eye is compassionate. Her characters are endearing; they are kind. While working on a computer at school, Olivia is exasperated by the admiring attentions of Bad-Breath-Bevan, also a computer nerd. She tries pushing him away, then relents and goes out to buy him a toothbrush.

An important character is GF, Olivia’s stuffed green frog. She will not be parted from him. Not only is GF often Livvy’s most reliable emotional support, he is an effective plot device. From her conversations with GF we learn much of Olivia’s inner life. He is less generous that she is and makes mean comments about almost everyone, but she argues, searching for insights to explain human peculiarities. While this alter-ego represents her refusal to let go of her child self, he also provides the opportunity for exploration of her own reactions, and the growth of empathy and maturity. There were times though, when I found GF just a bit intrusive. I could have done with less of him. The family feels the same way. But the ending, where his symbolic significance is central, had me inwardly cheering.

Taking Wainui is more of a mixed bag. It’s mixed in the best sense of combining a wide variety of stories, ghost stories, fantasy, harsh realism, over-the-top humour, and it also stirs in essays where the writer talks of painful personal experience. Much has been published overseas, as well as in New Zealand. Her essay, ‘The Rising Epidemic of Bullying’, a second place-getter in the 2012 Landfall essay competition, is included here. However, overall, the quality is also uneven.

The stories I most enjoyed were those where Solomon is having fun, giving her humour full rein. ‘The SammySeries’ comprises a number of short pieces that follow the adventures of an angel on his first trip to earth, and his hairdresser girlfriend, Tiffany. Sammy is an arrogant, strutting poser, untroubled by lack of clarity about his earthly mission. Being above human law, he quickly runs foul of a red traffic light, and is among us no more. Tiffany recovers quickly. We then get her view – Sammy was a bludger – and the story series belongs to Tiffany thereafter. There’s a wonderful off-beat quality to Solomon’s playfulness. Nothing’s impossible or improbable, nothing’s too wild, too crazy. She is bold, funny and original.

Unfortunately, I found that too many of the pieces here were excellent ideas not sufficiently realised as stories. Often they begin well then deteriorate into what feels like notes towards a story, rather than the finished article. Resolutions that are too easy and unsatisfying marred the stories ‘Taking Wainui’ and ‘Subterranean Ghost Station Blues’.In both of these there was also a failure to create convincing characters. The main character in ‘Taking Wainui’ is a New Zealand gang leader’s son, and in ‘Subterranean Ghost Station Blues’, the daughter of a privileged New York family. I couldn’t distinguish one voice from the other. For all her imaginative ability, Solomon has not fully imagined these people or their very different worlds.

The essays, however, are fully engaging. In these we learn much of her experience of being diagnosed with a brain tumour, her treatment, and some of the aftermath. In ‘Dying Matters’ Solomon places the difficult issue of the right to choose to die in the context of her possible future. There is courage in these musings and a bleak clear-sightedness that left me in awe.

In her play Brain Graft she draws upon this experience. It is the year 2030 in the UK. Medicine has advanced to allow a live donor to sell a section of their frontal lobe for transplant purposes. It is a good idea but, like some of the stories, insufficiently developed. Little attempt is made to imagine life in the near future. Apart from the brain graft, there are no technological developments obvious in the lives of the characters, nor any other details that mark the time as not our own. The characters have little individuality beyond their place in the British class system. Isobella is ‘posh’. She suffers a brain tumour. The donor is Tracey, who is ‘common’. After the operation, Isobella develops signs of being ‘common’, swears, drinks, takes to wearing boob tubes. Tracey, having lost that part of her brain, becomes motivated to work, study and improve herself. This may be deliberate caricature, but for me it was too close to the stereotypes of ordinary prejudice to be anything but irritating.

I found the huge differences in the quality of these books troubling. Two things stood out. One was to do with the role of the publisher. Proverse Hong Kong is the publisher of both Instant Messages and Brain Graft. On the title page of the former the company is named as being responsible for page design, copy-editing and proof-reading. In the production of this book, a team of professionals stood behind the writer and ensured that her work was presented at its best. Not so for Brain Graft. Copy-editing and proof-reading are not mentioned on this title page. This play seriously needed the attention of a skilled editor to work with the writer to develop the potential of the work. Woven Words Publishers OPC Pvt. Ltd of India, publishers of Taking Wainui, also make no mention of an editor.

The second big difference is that Instant Messages includes an Author’s Acknowledgements page, where the writer thanks all who helped her in the completion of the manuscript. Here, she was well supported. Several people, including experienced writers, read drafts, gave advice and encouragement. It’s not surprising that in this book, Laura Solomon’s ability shines.

In the final piece in Taking Wainui, Solomon talks about her experience of the writing life. She recommends using social media, both for contact with readers, but also for the contact with other writers, some of whom have offered help with future projects. I do hope this happens. Laura Solomon is a brave and committed writer who deserves support. May she live long, and produce many more fine books.

CAROLYN MCCURDIE is a Dunedin poet and novelist. Her most recent publication, Bones in the Octagon, is a poetry collection published by Mākaro Press in 2015. She is working on a second collection, and a second YA science fiction novel.