Sunday, 6 April 2014

Lamplighter by Kerry Donovan Brown (VUP 2014)

Lamplighter made me think of Lloyd Jones and his philosophy about narrative.  In this interview ( Jones says that he enjoys elements in fiction where divergent points meet up, for instance when oral and written traditions make their way into a story.  Jones isn’t interested in plots (although one usually emerges) but in a persuasive narrative voice that communicates playfulness and intense concentration.  Jones also notes how people who are sealed off from the world look to the horizon where possibility and ‘otherness’ exist.  All of these elements are in Donovan Brown’s novel.

The prose in Lightlighter is at times poetic, especially when Donovan Brown is describing the wetland area where the novel is set.  The story is told in third person narration focalised through Candle.  His Grandfather is the current Lamplighter, a role that Candle is set to inherit, and his apprenticeship involves following his Grandfather as he lights the lamps every evening.  While a great deal of the descriptive prose is poetic, at other times, the writing slips into fable, especially when the Lamplighter is recalling stories of the creatures that exist beyond the lamplight.  There are also references to pā sites and battles on the land.  The novel is full of stories about place that are recalled through oral storytelling.  The divergent elements of storytelling – oral and written – meet and play with each other in Brown’s novel, and show the palimpsest of stories that mingle together in a single place.

I found Brown’s narrative voice intoxicating and lulling, like any good fable, but the story is also bound to the realities of life in a coastal settlement.  It’s the meeting of the divergent elements of fable and realism that I really enjoyed, and the combination made the story feel timeless.  While there are indications that the novel is set recently, the inclusion of a video game for example, it also feels like the action could be happening at any point in the last couple of centuries.  The community’s relationship to modernity is playful while also having the intense concentration that Jones speaks of because the sense of timelessness shows the unchanging attitude of some members of the community.
However, the community of Porbeagle is on the brink of change because the lamplighter’s role is being disestablished, which means that Candle’s apprenticeship is nearing the end.  The role of the Lamplighter is to light a perimeter against the dark “and the wildernesses beyond.”  This boundary between light and dark is like the ocean’s horizon to Jones.  In the wilderness lies other ways of being, it’s where ‘otherness’ exists.  The lighting of the boundary against the dark is an allegory for sexuality. Throughout the narrative Candle negotiates the community’s attitude towards his sexuality.  The mix of fable and realism in relation to sexuality is very clever.  A novel that discusses homosexuality in realist terms has perhaps become too familiar, and canny readers are aware of the themes and the feelings of characters who are coming to terms with their sexuality in a community that is perhaps disapproving.  Brown makes a familiar story new by mixing elements of realism and fable in discussions about sexuality.

About halfway through the novel when I had sobered up from the intoxication of the language I wondered where the novel was going, but a plot does come into play and all the stories of the Lamplighter and mythology come together.  The characters in the novel are fully formed and entirely convincing, but the most impressive feature in Brown’s writing is his descriptions (and evident love) of the coastal environment. While I didn’t always know the critters and plants that Brown was describing, the layering of detail added to magical qualities of place.

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