A book cover featuring a brown-skinned foot dipping into a milky liquid, with clouds of yellow and brown (spices, maybe?) swirling further out in the water. Book is placed on a bright yellow and orange background.
Brace for the best book yet by Brannavan Gnanalingam (Design: Archi Banal)

BooksMay 24, 2022

A review of Onehunga horror story Slow Down, You’re Here

A book cover featuring a brown-skinned foot dipping into a milky liquid, with clouds of yellow and brown (spices, maybe?) swirling further out in the water. Book is placed on a bright yellow and orange background.
Brace for the best book yet by Brannavan Gnanalingam (Design: Archi Banal)

Claire Mabey reviews the cracking new novel by Brannavan Gnanalingam, whose previous book Sprigs was shortlisted for the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction.

Early on in Slow Down, You’re Here, Vishal, a tired dad, makes a decision. He runs through a mild variety of consequences before he does so but ultimately “… the kids are quiet. I should take advantage of this time to have a shower.” And I remembered how, when my son was a baby, I could never get through a shower without thinking I could hear him screaming. I’d stop the water, panicking, but also frustrated. I needed a shower. Just a short one. The baby was sleeping and safe. It was just some prickish trick between the water and hormones and exhaustion. It’s from this precise, strung out kind of decision that Gnanalingam crafts his domestic hellscape. 

This novel presses a deft finger on the “what if” button on the dashboard of daily life until your adrenal glands are in overdrive. Because there is nothing slow about Slow Down, You’re Here. Its terrific pace is a result of its sleek structure. The action unfolds over 57 short scenes, some just two pages long, that alternate between two primary locations: a family home in Onehunga, Auckland where two little kids are trying to fend for themselves; and an Airbnb in Oneroa, Waiheke Island where their mother, Kavita, is on a sexy, secret getaway with an old flame from her uni days. Through this setup the mundane details of domesticity are flipped, one accident, one decision after another, until we’re neck deep in a thriller that is unerring in its gaze and breathtakingly assured in its ability to show just how precarious our world really is. 

I would not judge you if you had ever wondered what your toddler would do if left alone for a long stretch of time. Would they get themselves lunch? Dinner? Put themselves to bed? Would they know how to find nappies, water, wipes? In Japan there’s a TV show called Hajimete no Otsukai (My First Errand) (Old Enough on Netflix) in which toddlers are sent out into the wide world to go to the shops or travel on trains and buses. It’s a massive hit. The compulsion to interrogate just how capable our smallest citizens are is clearly a human thing. In Gnanalingam’s world the youngest characters are the true innocents and the catalysts for the most suspenseful scenes. The narrative voice lets us into the mind of the oldest child, Aarani, as she tries to cope alone with her brother, Bhavan, so little that he’s in nappies and only just beginning to talk. The immediacy of the writing makes the experience of reading compelling yet excruciating. Take this paragraph as an example: “[Aarani] had no idea where Amma kept her scissors, or where her own baby scissors were kept. She wasn’t sure they’d be strong enough to get into the packets anyway. She tried to pull the pasta packet open with her hands, but it wouldn’t budge. She could see the individual strands of the spaghetti in between her hands. All so close.” 

Photograph of middle-aged man wearing white printed T.
Gnanalingam – lawyer, dad and conceiver of domestic hellscapes (Photo: Lucy Li)

Gnanalingam writes in the acknowledgements that this novel was originally conceived as a film script. This is evident in the crisp, cinematic quality of every page, in scenes like the above: nothing is wasted, every line of dialogue, every description of the ordinary is placed to push the story on, ever faster and with higher stakes. Over the course of the book, objects begin to resound with signals of alarm as chapter by chapter the adult sphere and the child sphere mirror each other. In one scene Bhavan and Aarani manage to get themselves up to the kitchen sink where they can finally access water. Everything about the attempt is precarious and could lead to another disaster. Just a few pages later, their unwitting mother Kavita is embracing excess: “Aswhin opened a second bottle and filled up a water glass each. The more they drunk, the larger the pours … The leftover fish n chips were strewn on the table, almost as an afterthought.” Even the mention of a few stray chips and a merriment of liquid is enough to make you curl up with desperation, pleading “will someone just please think of the children!”. 

And this cry from the reader is, I think, at the heart of the novel. Judgement is a complex idea in Gnanalingam’s hands. This clever author uses horror tropes to provoke something more than a thrill. Like classic horror films we always know more than the characters do and so we are provoked into yelling into the pages, “look behind you!” styles. But because this story takes place in the crushingly familiar domestic world and in Aotearoa there is a large and scary mirror being held up which begs the question of those who look into it: who is innocent and who is guilty and where do you fit in? 

The kids, Aarani and Bhavan, symbolise the innocent. Of course they are. They didn’t ask for any of it. However their parents are neither to blame nor are they blameless. Take a subtly pivotal scene at a yoga studio on Waiheke Island. Kavita is there reluctantly, only giving it a go because her lover, Ashwin, is a self-improvement addict and feels the need to try to fit in. Kavita is ill-prepared wearing the “wrong” clothes and can’t take it as seriously as Ashwin does. The studio is offensive from start to finish: there’s no QR code for contact tracing; it smacks of white, privileged wealth and the kind of wide-spread arrogance that pervades the wellness industry. Kavita, whose wit and intelligence glimmers throughout the book, loses her patience with the vacuous cultural appropriation of the class:

“[Namaste] just means ‘hello,’” Kavita found herself saying aloud.
Taylor opened his eyes and frowned.
Kavita repeated “It just means ‘hello’. Like if I was Hindi, I’d just say it to my mate.”
One of the women behind her said, “Shhh.” She turned to Ashwin who was looking at her with horror.

These are the scenes that really kill you: minor, usually white, characters behaving like arseholes. Vishal is subjected to drunk racist bullies through the course of his work as a taxi driver; Kavita is in a job that does nothing to utilise her obvious intelligence; Ashwin is a bundle of nerves striving not to be overlooked in life and in work; and the seagulls are circling (literally. There’s an amazing scene with fish’n’chips and a rogue seagull on the beach at Waiheke. Those fucking birds want our eyes.) Gnanalingam makes sure to contextualise Kavita, Vishal, Aarani, Bhavan and Ashwin within an Aotearoa that is structurally racist and that consistently and cruelly undermines those who don’t immediately fit within that white supremacist framework. Kavita, Vishal and Aswhin are good people doing their best. We don’t blame Kavita for gapping it to Waiheke for a break because we understand that temptation: she is exhausted, bored, frustrated juggling kids and work. We feel indignant on behalf of Vishal and worry for Aswhin too. In Slow Down, You’re Here, you can’t relax because even if the immediate fears subside, we’re still in a world in which people try to destroy people. It’s like in horror movies when the story ends but you know the scare isn’t over. Some long, dark shadow of the monster remains in the background. What Gnanalingam shows us is that there’s a slow and steady apocalypse waiting just outside the front door. 

And yet. For all that the adults in this novel can’t be blamed for the shitty systems they are trying to live within, the most complex question lingers and it’s one that will plague you, the reader. Should we even have children? This is perhaps the hardest question of our present time and is felt the world over. No matter how great you are as a person and parent the fact remains that you’re bringing an innocent life into a period of unprecedented, looming peril. At best parenting can be a relentless series of tiny horrors. The mistakes we make. The near misses. The sheer scale of the gore if you count up all the fluids, cuts, bruises, cracks, gastro bugs and worse. And that’s just the run of the mill lucky as hell version. But all of this pales in comparison to what’s going to happen if we don’t tackle the climate disaster, actively stand against racism, or scream for change so that socioeconomic inequalities rife in our country can be addressed.

So if we do choose to bring kids into this, should we be punished for our selfish desires? If you’re a parent, can you ever not be fucking up your kids? Are we thrusting innocent lives into the beginning of the end? 

If you pick up Slow Down, You’re Here in the bookshop you won’t get any clues about what’s to come from the cover. The artist Dilohana Lekamge made the image for Gnanalingam in response to the book. There is a creamy puddle, or perhaps a deep pool, scattered with turmeric and cinnamon. Or perhaps the colours are evidence of something bubbling underneath and bursting to the top. A brown foot has dipped itself into the aromatic mix, the toes wetted, the rest of the foot is, perhaps, about to plunge in. 

Still Life in art has always interested me for what the images illuminate and how they can work to unsettle the domestic as much as beautify it. Lekamge has produced something truly marvellous for Gnanalingam: how the searching foot, the milky spill, might bathe you in calm before the potency of the spices and the unknown depth of the pool begin to spike your anxiety. 

But while the imagery might be subtle, the epitaph lying plain on the page just before you start chapter one is not:

“Father our pain,” they said, “Will lessen if you eat us you are the one / Who clothed us with this wretched flesh: we plead For you to be the one who strips it away.” (Dante’s Inferno, Canto XXXIII).

Yup. It’s an inferno alright. A cracking good one. Many a regular human has speculated on just how Gnanalingam does it. Sprigs, his acclaimed fifth novel, only came out, what, yesterday? But hold on to your babies, folks, because he’s done it again. 

Slow Down, You’re Here by Brannavan Gnanalingam (Lawrence & Gibson, $23) is available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington

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