Slow Down, You’re Here, the seventh and latest novel by the Wellington writer and lawyer Brannavan Gnanalingam, is packed with the stuff of life. That stuff is mostly work — of parents, of people of colour and of marriage.
The story, set in post-COVID lockdown Auckland, introduces us to Vishal and Kavita, who are barely getting by while raising their two children, four-year-old Aarani and two-year-old Bhavan, in a cramped Onehunga rental. Vishal, who was laid off from his marketing job, drives taxis but is not having much luck with it. If he’s not at the mercy of inebriated Englishmen soiling his car, he’s making honest mistakes and losing coin to passengers who can definitely spare a few extra dollars for fares. Kavita works in accounts and is the family’s main breadwinner, all the while carrying the household with little help from her husband.
While Vishal, tired and dejected, sleeps off his late-night indignities, Kavita is on the go, doing the washing, defrosting chicken for dinner and minding the children. She wants to wake Vishal up so he can help her. ‘One thing at a time,’ she reminds herself, but judging by how difficult it is for either of them to get a full night’s sleep or make a coffee, it’s everything all at once. Their lives are about some things (the same things, day in day out) and not others: the lot of parents.
Needless to say, Vishal and Kavita harbour frustrations with each other — frustrations that, combined with stress, exhaustion and an unequitable division of labour, have bred resentment. Vishal brings the washing in but doesn’t fold it. Kavita seethes. Love is attention, and in this house, attention is divided.
Along comes Ashwin, Kavita’s old flame from university, who invites her to a week away with him on Waiheke Island. Kavita, feeling unloved and unappreciated, accepts.
The novel cycles through the points of view of four characters — Vishal, Kavita, Ashwin and Aarani. We get the meat: feelings, emotions, neuroses, motivations and fears. There is Kavita, guilty at hiding her trip with Ashwin from her husband, who still hopes Vishal will show up for her:
Get up Vishal… If you get up early and look after the kids, I won’t leave you… Give me something that shows you’re fighting for this.
Vishal doesn’t wake up until late afternoon and an argument ensues. Vishal seeks to defend himself. He takes care of the children during the week while Kavita is at work. To him, it’s unfair that she’s angry at him for sleeping in on the weekend. Easily resolved, we think, by acknowledgment and acceptance from both parties. Vishal, who’s been thinking of looking for a more secure job, seems moved enough by this exchange to tell his wife. Surely this would smooth things over, or at least give Kavita something to chew on. No. Vishal doesn’t say a word because he doesn’t think she’d listen.
Kavita is frustrated and disappointed in Vishal. She believes he gives up on everything, which is her way of saying he is giving her no choice but to leave him. The assumptions we make of others, however reasoned they appear to us because of lived experience. Could things improve if the two of them shared their private gripes with each other? Perhaps, but this is life, and only a chosen few of us have the time, energy and money to cultivate the compassion and patience of the Dalai Lama.
Aside from Kavita and Vishal and their marriage woes, we have Ashwin, a forty-year-old bachelor who pulls long hours at work, hoping for recognition, while his boss favours his hotshot Maori colleague. Ashwin sees the trip away with Kavita as his chance to finally be with her after twenty years of lamenting the missed opportunity. Set up as an alternative to the lazy, adrift Vishal, Ashwin appears to be a solid romantic choice, though he looks down on others, talks at people not with them, and feels things more intensely than everyone else. This characterisation adds an interesting dimension to his and Kavita’s turbocharged tryst on the island.
Not to forget little Aarani, the gentle and caring lover of TV, who has a life-changing journey of her own after the novel’s major climactic event.
For the most part, Gnanalingam juggles the four main characters well, which is a feat considering how the story moves at a rate of knots and tops out at 200 pages. He also manages to delve into issues of race and ethnicity without slowing the pace and sacrificing story.
Minor characters get their time to shine too. Ashwin’s boss is a frightening combination of Hitler haircut and T-shirt with ‘Helvetica’ stamped across the front. There’s Marjorie, the owner of the house where the pair stay on Waiheke: she of the pan-African sculpture-owning, kimono-wearing tribe of Pakeha. There’s also the instructor at a local ashram whose name is Taylor, because, of course it is.
Another standout characterisation is the Englishman in the novel’s opening chapter. Vishal watches a fight between this man (drunk, no less) and a European over who will claim the passenger seat in his taxi. Gnanalingam paints the Englishman as ruddy and red-cheeked with a popped shirt collar, which reads as a deft return jab to colonisers and their flat, dehumanising descriptions of those they colonised.
While Gananlingam generally has a good handle on writing from the perspectives of multiple characters, there are, at times, abrupt shifts between them which is jarring. For example, when Ashwin and Kavita disembark the ferry on Waiheke, the section is in Ashwin’s point of view until we’re dropped into Kavita’s head for a few sentences before returning to Ashwin. Had Gnanalingam been doing this from the jump, I’d be on board, but these quick shifts don’t appear regularly enough to feel intentional. Of course, there are changes in point of view across the novel, but Gnanalingam does them at the chapter-level.
Characters’ points of view are filtered unnecessarily throughout the novel. A few examples: ‘He glanced’, ‘He was worried’, ‘Don’t stand up, Ashwin thought.’ If we are deep in a character’s point of view (we should always be), we can recognise thoughts, feelings, and actions without being told what they are. Filtering removes intimacy and plots an inefficient path for the reader to access the emotion and drama of a story.
We get a good look at the developing emergency faced by Aarani and Bhavan throughout the story, but Aarani comes across as unrealistic in parts. Would the average four-year-old have a vocabulary that includes the words ‘co-mingled’, ‘exhortations’, ‘applauded’ and ‘conspiratorially’? A stray word here or there might seem minor, but it only takes a few to yank a reader out of the fantasy.
The same can be said of imprecise and confusing imagery. When Ashwin gets an erection he thinks it’s something that can be dampened. When Kavita warms up on a walk, she somehow knows the sweat on her forehead is a patina without being able to see it.
Elsewhere, there are passages where nearly every sentence begins with ‘She’ or ‘He’. Casting a keener eye over sentences and language would’ve made this book a stronger whole.
Overall, Slow Down, You’re Here is a commendable, action-packed novel that will leave many readers wanting respite. Gnanalingam, refreshingly, does not offer it. Here, life is brutish and short. People looking for a new take on the be-careful-what-you-wish-for trope will find this a welcome read.