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BooksJuly 30, 2020

Rugby, rape and the rest of us: Sprigs is a surefooted novel about heavy subjects

(Photo: Tom Roberton/Getty)
(Photo: Tom Roberton/Getty)

With Sprigs, Brannavan Gnanalingam delivers a great New Zealand novel, writes Uther Dean.

Since 2011 Brannavan Gnanalingam has pumped out Major Work after Major Work. Every two years brought another book: Getting Under Sail; You Should Have Come Here When You Were Not Here; Credit in the Straight World; A Briefcase, Two Pies and a Penthouse.

The latter seemed to be Gnanalingam taking a short break from making searing, complex and brilliant statements on the world with a pointedly comic and light take (like any writer worth their salt, his books are always funny – Briefcase was simply the first to be a comedy) on Aotearoa’s intelligence community. But it had teeth. What starts as The Office with Kiwi spies soon spirals into a measured scream about the prejudice, hate and indifference built into every level of every power system in this country.

And then, of course, there was 2018’s Sodden Downstream which you probably already know about. That’s the one that was Ockham shortlisted. People who hadn’t read Gnanalingam’s previous work (or his criticism as one of the leading lights at the dear and departed Lumiere Reader) declared it the arrival of a great new voice. There is not much to add except now, with the hype past the horizon, it’s clear Sodden does in fact deserve it.

Sodden Downstream and Sprigs, Brannavan Gnanalingam’s two most recent novels. (Photos: Supplied)

Now: Sprigs. A major work from one of the nation’s leading writers who is, as he says in the acknowledgements, “a survivor / victim of sexual violence … mining my own trauma”. The novel is not autobiographical, but it was harrowing to write at times, he says.

It is a meticulous and immaculate book, one that, bolting through a minefield, never puts a foot wrong. It moves with the grace and thunderous power that the high school rugby players who seethe at the centre of its plot only dream of.

Certain male writers in this country love to write about toxic masculinity and rape culture. They love to write about how those things exist, are bad, and then nothing else. Just, Thing: Bad. A whole lot of moping, doing bad things, feeling conflicted and then Whaddarya-ing into the pantheon of modern culture. It’s boring. And even when they’re not boring, they’re usually vile. Mistaking sympathy for empathy and adding to the long and mundane list of Flawed Great Men as if that was anything other than another act of rape culture in and of itself.

Not so Gnanalingam. This is a novel about toxic masculinity, patriarchy and rape culture, not a novel about how those things are bad. He assumes you already know that, because, well, you’re reading the book. An ensemble novel, it follows the many swirling stories that spring out of a high school rugby team gang raping a 15-year-old at a party.

I should mention that Sprigs begins with a detailed trigger warning and a list of characters and relationships and ends with various support resources for the issues raised. These are all vital to engaging safely with the book.

Not mistaking sympathy for empathy, Gnanalingam explores the diseased thinking that the “good old days” metastasized into the Man Alone, our country’s pathetic attempt at a masculine ideal that revolves more around arguing with mud than actually engaging with the world. He goes deep into the hearts of dozens of people who are all in some way unknowing victims of and champions for rape culture, for the Man Alone.

From the twisting moral gerrymandering of the rapists’ inner lives to the school administration attempting a cover-up – and, more importantly, attempting to convince themselves it’s not a cover-up – we see into everyone’s souls. We are shown how tainted everyone is, and the different ways that can manifest.

Brannavan Gnanalingam. (Photo: Lucy Li)

Gnanalingam has always been deft with character voice but here betters himself. Every mind we meet, every snatch of conversation, feels whole, unique and real. The world of Sprigs is complete and it simply feels like Gnanalingam is showing us a window into it. So, as much as this is a work of Theme and Ideas and Scope, it ends up an intensely personal work – we understand the stakes and meanings of these people’s lives.

This is a book about a gang rape where the most upsetting moment in it (and, be warned, it is an upsetting book, exactly as it should be) is a girl being called a “slut” by someone she once thought was her friend. This is a book where the first hundred pages describe a rugby game and the most satisfying, most thrilling part is someone throwing a glass of water in someone else’s face. This is, I want to be absolutely clear, incredibly high praise.

Some of it comes down to the peerless care with which Gnanalingam discusses and portrays violence. We do not “see” the violences in this story. We’re always looking slightly the wrong way, it’s just out of sight. Literally obscene. This makes the book palatable (Gnanalingam’s smooth prose only catches in your throat when he wants it to) and it makes it universal. Who has not, as with many of the characters in Sprigs, been witness to the ripples of rape culture but not the event? Knowing enough to know, but little enough to let yourself do nothing?

(Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Sprigs shows us that as much as rape culture and all attendant sicknesses are concepts, ruling memes we all serve, it is a real thing that happens in the real world to real people. Gnanalingam takes the “I knew it was bad but I didn’t know it was this bad” pain that #MeToo taught the world (well, those in the world male enough not to already know it) and builds a whole book out of it.

It is a grim book, yes, but it is also full of life. As much as it explores the murky darkness that white men have shrouded the world in, it finds sparks of light and hope in there. It is a heavy book about a heavy subject but it never mercilessly twangs your heartstrings. It is worthy but not work, thick but not dense and calm without being cold.

It is a magnum opus, until his next one.

Sprigs, by Brannavan Gnanalingam (Lawrence & Gibson, $30) is available from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland

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