Book of the Week: A Case About Waiheke

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A love affair gone wrong on Waiheke Island

The Premise of Brannavan Gnanalingam’s New Novel Slow down, there you are is simple: the portrait of a dead marriage. Kavita feels trapped. Her husband Vishal is emotionally catatonic and going through the motions of their life together. She has a thrill with an old flame, Ashwin. Neither Kavita nor Ashwin really know what they want from each other. Regardless, they both need a break from the capitalist machinery that crushes their weekdays and working lives. If nothing, there will be a vacation in Waiheke, and that may be enough for both of them. What Vishal thinks or wants very quickly becomes redundant in the scheme of things. But Kavita has children, and the children have to take care of them.

However To slow down is a confusing book. Is it also a study of everyday monotony? A commentary on the drudgery of raising children, and the superficiality of pursuing romantic and sexual relationships, and the horror of survival?

It seems to me that there are several ways of thinking about Gnanalingam’s last novel. The first is to think about Slow down, there you are like a novel about seeing: what we see, what we look like, how we hope and fear to be seen. Think of these two passages as a mini-study of the book’s main characters:

Kavita looked at Vishal for the first time in this whole conversation. He could see lines and what looked like tear marks in her eyes, but he couldn’t look any further. What he saw frightened him, and he didn’t want to know if she hated him at that moment.

[Ashwin] had her back to him, surveying the room. Kavita had to do something not to be deterred. Offset her shock at seeing her middle-aged body with the shock at seeing her naked body. She lifted her top above her head and unzipped her skirt and let them both fall to the floor. Ashwin turned around and was startled by the suddenness of Kavita’s movements.

This possesses to be a book about the gaze, because it is also a book about race, and we wear our race on our faces. Ashwin assimilated into a Pākehā world, adopting its modalities and communicating in its obscure language like a good immigrant. He’s an outsider allowed to join a cult, but he’s also a quick study, though he’s worried about the undercurrents of what he might miss.

Sanderson asked if he could get the report by Tuesday.

Ashvin replied “I’m off this week! Sorry, but the owners might need to give a little more warning on these points.” Before sending it, he did a word search on “Sanderson”. No, there was nothing he had missed.

“Are you on vacation? I don’t remember approving that ;)” Will emailed.

It was a joke ? Ashwin wondered. He could never tell with Will. What was the wink supposed to mean? Even if it was a joke, was it also serious?

“I can prioritize that when I get back next week,” he emailed. He needed some certainty. Otherwise, feelings of guilt would persist.

He received a reply shortly afterwards. “GTL would be a great long-term client. They have a big property portfolio and landlords in Auckland have only just started to catch up on seismic checks. Or at least their tenants have.”

Just ask me to work, Ashwin thought. Damn, ask me. None of those mind games.

What Owner Pākehā Waiheke might see in Kavita and Ashwin is a dark-haired woman and a dark-haired man, but there are unspoken and unacknowledged differences between the two. Each seems to think the other better than themselves. Kavita considers herself inferior to the kind of women Ashwin can date, and Ashwin reflects on how hard it is to date a dark-haired man in Aotearoa.

Ashwin has the financial power to sponsor a week in Waiheke, and Kavita can provide sex and conversation

The relationship feels bad. Each is out of balance, never quite coming together in an authentic or vulnerable moment. This is perhaps typical of the uncertainty and covert nihilism with which we chase love. Which is why it’s confusing and a little melancholic how readily Ashwin calls it love, though he has no indication if it’s reciprocated.

Ashwin has the financial power to sponsor a week in Waiheke, and Kavita can provide sex and conversation, but their slow romance in Waiheke masks the power swing.

“No, that’s perfect,” Ashwin replied.

When he hung up, he could see Kavita laughing.

“What?”

“Your posh telephone accent. Very BBC.”

Ashwin felt defensive. “Everyone does it !”

“I know, of course we all know that. But it’s funny. Yours is so different. I can’t wait to hear you on the phone with your parents. It’ll be a full 180.”

Predictably, Ashwin doesn’t take it well, even though he’s too well-behaved to tell. Kavita basically calls it on a duplicity, a duplicity that yearns for good immigrants, the hope is imperceptible, seamless. He believes that since he wears whiteness as an invisibility cloak, he passes for exactly that, a white person. He has all the marks of one who has assimilated well. Kavita considers him rich and successful; a brown man who mainly dates white women. She is aware of her body because she fears her judgment.

The novel begins with an uncomfortable encounter between a taxi driver and his drunken passenger. The scene is seething with unspoken violence and racism

It’s tempting to read the characters’ inability to really and properly look at themselves as a telltale symptom of their egocentrism, but To slow down is also a very solitary book. I don’t know how much the pandemic lockdowns seeped into the writing of this novel, but the universe of this book is deeply claustrophobic.

Perhaps it makes sense that Gnanalingam originally conceived of this book as a movie script. The novel memorably begins with an uncomfortable encounter between a taxi driver and his drunken passenger. The scene is seething with unspoken violence and racism. The balance of power in this first chapter is balanced on a knife’s edge and sets the tone of the book from the start. Whether it’s the stinking interior of a sullied cab, an unhappy house, or a Waiheke rental, the novel locks in its characters. This is further emphasized in the domestic horror aspects of the book – not just the eventual isolation of the children, but the utter insularity of each character’s inner world.

I have other problems with Slow down, there you are. Dwelling a little less on the drudgery of the failed marriage might have helped the pacing. A little more information on Vishal and his atypical lack of ambition (for a South Asian immigrant) would have been interesting.

But deep down, To slow down is a novel about class, loneliness, and how we see or don’t see ourselves. It’s also a deeply melancholy book — not just because of the eventual horror that befalls its most vulnerable characters, but because its slowness masks an inexorable march toward known tragedy. We know where we are going, we know what awaits us at the end of the book, but we are forced to spend our time in Waiheke, worrying about money, class and real estate, the desirability of our bodies, of the sum total of our sexual encounters, while something terrible awaits us at the end of the journeys. Maybe that’s the point the author wanted to make after all.

Slow down, there you are by Brannavan Gnanalingam (Lawrence & Gibson, $25) is available in bookstores nationwide.

About Lillian Coomer

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