Brannavan Gnanalingam takes a scalpel to all that is rotten within a private boys’ school in his latest novel, Sprigs. In the aftermath of a brutal act of sexual violence, his aim may be precise, but it’s also sweeping. Everything from bullying, racism, toxic masculinity, to adults using their power and privilege to protect their own is eviscerated.
Sprigs is Gnanalingam’s fifth novel. His last, Sodden Downstream (2017), was a fiction finalist at the 2018 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards: its protagonist, Sita, is a Tamil refugee who makes a fraught journey during a storm from Lower Hutt to her cleaning job in Wellington. For Sita, the violence in her life lies in the past, in Sri Lanka. In Sprigs, the violence is local.
The novel’s central narrative – the story of a teenage girl who is gang-raped by several players in the First XV at a post-match party, and the events following – is split into four parts: The Game; The Party; The Meeting; and The Trial. The bland titles do little to hint at the structural brilliance within. In particular, the major turn in the final act comes as a slam in the gut.
The first three parts flick swiftly from one point of view to another. In The Game, this roaming perspective may recall the technical skill of players throwing a ball around a field. Like Hussein, the maths teacher, I am also bewildered by rugby. My fear of being unable to pick up on any sporting nuances appeared to be confirmed right from the opener, which launched with a discombobulating speech by the coach, Twyford, brimming with machismo: ‘For most of you, I’m delaying your Saturday shits. This is a game. This is the game. Win this, and you’ll go down in St Luke’s annals. Lose this, and you’ll go down in infamy … You don’t want to go out as losers do you?’
This is how they talk? Further down, it’s revealed that Twyford is playing a role, and that he’s also the English teacher. Suddenly, his flourishes make sense. But do the boys realise or care for his references to Waiting for Godot or pick up on the self-parody? Probably not. The First XV captain, Pritchard, signs off his own speech with, ‘We need to fuck those Grammar fags up. Bunch of losers.’
There’s a head-spinning number of characters, crowding in as though they’re tumbling into a getaway car. (The book includes a three-page list of characters.) Gnanalingam teases out tiny observations to add depth and detail. Gradually, a few key characters form solid shapes. Richie, potentially St Luke’s’ best player, is viewed as some kind of mascot of diversity: ‘St Luke’s’ first-five, Richie, their “token” as he was semi-affectionately known, had the worst spot next to the toilets’.
Although Richie is the only brown boy on the team, checking his actual whakapapa proves to be a task beyond the others: ‘Despite the barbs, the lads practised their “bro handshake” on him and expected Richie – although his Mum was Sa¯moan – to lead their haka on the few occasions a year that the school haka was deemed culturally appropriate.’ Richie is afforded no such cruise control: the emotional labour he’s having to deploy to fit in is in perpetual overdrive:
‘Skux boi, how’d you make it out to the game? Did you walk from Poor Ma¯ori?’
Richie didn’t know how to respond. He had no choice but to laugh. Be the good-humoured fellow in the face of such comments. If he reacted, Tafty’d be harder to tolerate. So he gave an involuntary grin, flashing his unmanicured teeth in the face of kids whose parents spent thousands of dollars at the orthodontist. He tried to think of a joke because he worried about looking gormless. He couldn’t. ‘Nah bro, drove out.’
‘Shit bro, your car must have the best suspension to deal with all of the potholes around where you are.’
‘Nah, it can’t be too flash or it’d get nicked.’ Richie burned inside at stooping to Tafty’s level.
Another First XV player, Tim, may be gay, but who knows? Who is even there to listen? The Principal’s address at assembly – ‘As far as I know, we’ve never had a gay student at St Luke’s but we want to make sure you know that we see you’ – is about as good as it gets.
Also attempting to fit in is Priya. In the stifling atmosphere of Simeon College, sister school to St Luke’s, she’s used to dismissing her own feelings whenever her hesitant attempts get a ‘meh’ response from her friends.
She had to maintain a sense of coolness. Yet she found herself asking, ‘You ok to drive us Polly? Restricted and all?’
Polly and Jess and Liv laughed. Priya wanted to rewind time. She never could talk seamlessly.
Priya’s exchanges with her family demonstrate a similar stilted quality, the result of navigating between two cultures: her parents, she thinks, assume ‘I’d get married one day to a nice Sri Lankan boy’. But there are also some sublime moments of connection with her Amma – who she calls ‘Mum’ in front of her white friends – and with her Appamma, who flies in to share her own secrets with Priya.
The narrative is unrelenting in its depictions of a toxic culture, but Gnanalingam isn’t above giving us some comic relief, even if served up as a dry-nah-burnt side dish. ‘She turned off the TV and Hazel screamed as if she was being assassinated. Kelly thought, if she was, at least there’d be some silence.’ This is how a fumbling kiss is described: ‘she felt like she was at the dentist wishing for the dental nurse’s hose with the amount of saliva in her mouth.’ There’s a particularly LOL moment when a techie is sprung by cops needing to seize equipment from the computer lab.
Whenever the perspective switches to a different character, the rape somehow becomes all about them. Picking through these layers is a mammoth task, one which Gnanalingam takes on fearlessly. When news of the attack reaches the upper echelons of St Luke’s College, the self-serving principal and some equally vile parents and trustees immediately call in lawyers and take PR advice to minimise any damage to the reputation of the school.
Nothing is heard from the young woman herself in the aftermath until the final act, where the entire narrative is retold from her corner and in first-person. We aren’t given the easy option of having her story revealed as a singular act of evil, to be captured and contained. Rather, it’s death by tiny cuts, complicity and cover-up seeping up through the wounds. The details of the rape itself aren’t made explicit, but all else is slowly drawn out in her utterly compelling monologue. It runs for nearly a hundred pages, confronting us with just how much of her story has been erased in the preceding pages.
Given the subject matter, it may be presumed that Sprigs comes wrapped with a ‘message’. It doesn’t. What it does do, with a whole lot of insight, tenderness and fearlessness, is open up the conversation. By the end, my scribbled notes included a bunch of question marks. Where do we draw the line when it comes to allowing circumstance and culture to mitigate the agency of individuals? Is forgiveness a sliding scale between healing and erasure? How do we do better?
Gnanalingam stays clear of glib answers, offering instead the prospect of a different kind of solidarity, for those who have ‘to start all over again, slowly, painfully, and in full public view’ but who ‘know our stories are our own’.