I'll be helping to launch The Mermaid Boy on 7 May at Unity Books (6pm). In the meantime, here are just three reasons to read this important new book.
Laughing at Real Life
The best books persuade us on many levels. It’s often the humour of The Mermaid Boy that gets me first. But the laughter comes from unexpected places.
In ‘Real Life’ a bunch of male students set up in a grotty flat. But it’s not in the usual ‘student ghettoes’. This flat is across town in a poor and dangerous street. And the people they meet are not ‘playing at real life’, but trapped there. They're damaged and eccentric strugglers. So the comedy comes from trying to reach and understand them, to reconcile their vastly different outlooks on the world.
The prime difficulty is the landlady, and her ideas about what's reasonable for tenants to expect. Insulation might be reasonable in some parts of town, but not this one.
'She repeated the word syllable by syllable. ‘In-su-la-tion, in-su-la-tion. Why, I never heard of such a thing,’ she said. ‘Insulation?’
‘Like a Pink Batt,’ I said.
Her eyes widened, her voice rose. ‘A pink what? Oh, my goodness no.’
It was as if I had said something like ‘French letter’.'
Piercing a myth about manual work
The Mermaid Boy also pierces an old tendency of New Zealand writing to romanticise manual work. Growing up as an arts student in Christchurch, this young man has the opportunity to work for the top employer in the area, the Warehouse, or find equally mundane alternatives.
Punching the clock on a series of boring jobs in factories and workshops, lugging pallets and stapling mattresses, he tells himself he's 'collecting experience’ for a Great New Zealand Novel. But eventually he's confronted with the holes in this fantasy:
'What I was really collecting were memories of mundane work and of sitting lonely in smoko rooms. I was too shy to start conversations with my co-workers, and never learnt much about them beyond how they went about their jobs. Only the blowhards and the loudmouths made their stories known to me, and then they already sounded like bad fiction.'
On a Slow Boat to China
John Summers has published widely as a travel writer. He also writes for the adventure website Up Country. At first, the central character seems to share this interest in adventure, especially overseas. In The Mermaid Boy we’re taken twice to China, and once to Japan. We also visit Australia, Burma, and many small New Zealand towns, via a hitchhiker’s thumb.
But this is far from some self-aggrandising yarn of world conquest. In fact, probing questions are asked about the value and meaning of travel.
One of the most intriguing stories takes place on a slow boat to China; not in the unknown, but still getting there. Trapping the reader in this liminal space for the entire story, this clever structural technique tests our expectations about what travel stories are, and what their characters do.
Read more about the book here. Launch details below.