Carl Nixon’s fifth novel, The Waters, is true to his roots as a short-story writer: he is a past winner of both the BNZ Katherine Mansfield and Sunday Star Times Short Story Competitions, and the author of the 2012 collection Fish ’n’ Chip Shop Song. The Waters is described as ‘a novel in 21 stories’, and some of these story-chapters will be familiar to readers. One started life as the BNZ Mansfield winner in 2007; others have appeared in anthologies or magazines. So this is less a typical novel following the story of the Waters, a troubled family from near Christchurch, and more a collection of Waters-adjacent short stories that jump between characters, points of view and decades to build this dark family drama from the outside in.
The Waters themselves are as much a fixture of their small Canterbury town as ‘the pub, the two-classroom school or the old jetty’. Mark, the oldest brother of the family and the novel’s first point of view, is ‘mad, bad and dangerous to be friends with’, a bit of a loner, with a mysterious scar over one eye and an affinity for violence. This is directed mostly at his father Pat, who he longs to ‘kick and stomp, to leave the old shit bloody and quivering.’ The next one down is Davey, the best-looking of the family and the ‘most beautiful’ person most people have apparently ever seen: ‘I watched Lisa have the same stunned-mullet reaction that women inevitably had around Davey. It had been like that ever since old Romeo turned fourteen. If anything, it had got worse over the years.’
The Waters gives us less about Samantha, the baby of the family, who grows up with foster parents who are proud of ‘her caring spirit and her to-the-death defence of anyone she thought was getting a raw deal.’ Later we see her as the frazzled mother of a daughter struggling with anorexia, convinced that the problem is the family genes:
Nothing you’d done as a parent would have contributed in any way to Taylor’s condition because all her problems had been there when you gave that last grunting heave and she slipped bloody and squalling from between your legs. If genes were the be-all and end-all, then Taylor had already been broken even as Scribbler took the shiny scissors from the nurse and cut the rubbery length of umbilical cord. What was happening now was inevitable right from the moment you held her in your arms for the first time.
Marika, their own mother, makes her first appearance in a Hanmer hot pool, confiding in a stranger and giving us an honest take on her family life.
She told me about her two boys and about the man she was married to. There was also a little girl, a baby. Her husband was a drinker. He’d invested all their money in some type of business deal to do with building houses near the beach somewhere. She didn’t believe it was going to be a success. She’d also recently found out that he was sleeping with another woman. There were days when she couldn’t bring herself to get out of bed.
Marika jokes about ‘running away’ but admits she has ‘nowhere else to go’, revealing the deep vein of unhappiness running through this family. Nixon also paints a vivid picture of Pat, the drinker husband, who would ‘line up the empty beer bottles at his feet like small brown dogs, obedient and alert‘. He’s the ‘old bastard’ as Mark later calls him.
For the first time in years he thinks about the man who sometimes turned up at their house in New Brighton when they were kids. The same man who’d shout and rant and chase Davey and him around. The best place to hide was among the pines in the domain that bordered their section. The man wouldn’t normally bother chasing them into the pines. Most times they were safe among the trees.
Pat is a ‘bit of a salesman, always in a suit’, making financial decisions that require huge sacrifice for his family. In the chapters from his perspective, Pat shows no remorse, or even understanding of the role he plays in the family, just displaying the ‘typical Pat Waters bullshit’ that his children know all too well. ‘Maybe he’d said some things he shouldn’t have, but it was nothing his sister didn’t have coming… So stuff ’em, the hypocrites. All that lot did was think about themselves.’
Pat’s drinking and Marika’s mental health spiral out of control, creating a ripple effect across the decades on the lives of each child’s life, partners, their own children, colleagues –anyone, really, that knows or encounters them. Nixon’s special exploration of one family’s trauma from the perspectives of characters sometimes only circumstantially connected drives home the broader implications of surviving and dealing with abuse.
Although most chapters have designated timeframes and character perspectives, Nixon throws in a couple of awkward references to time and place, like a ‘new song by Queen’ on the radio. These feel unnecessary, given Nixon’s impressive ability to immerse us in the Canterbury countryside, creating an unmistakable sense of location – unsealed roads, shingle beaches, baches facing the water, a sheep paddock that ‘dissolved seamlessly into the low hills of the peninsula.’ Their Gothic childhood kitchen has ‘two dangling bulbs without shades’ and a bar heater. Above the stained benchtop ‘yellowed lace curtains hung like webs. Some of the cupboard doors were missing and high on one shelf was an open container of blue rat poison’. Hitchhiking in the fog, Davey sees cars as ‘luminous fish swimming through milk.’
The novel moves from 2001 to 2019 before jumping back to the 80s and then the 70s. Nixon uses this temporal span to contemplate the generational nature of trauma: the novel asks us whether the past can truly be overcome, or even just forgotten for a moment. Mark ends yet another relationship because he is apathetic, quiet, and ‘thinks like a crocodile’, according to his ex, Aroha – as though he’s ‘completely alone in the world’ and ‘has to survive totally’ by himself’. Mark has insomnia but represses his grief.
Since Aroha and her daughter, Bella, had moved out, after living with him for just over two years, a record for him, there’d been no one to disturb. He guessed that was one good thing about not being able to hold onto a relationship.
All the Waters siblings deal with tragedies, addictions and illnesses, loss and accidents. Davey feels ‘everything strongly’ – too strongly. ‘Feelings can erode you,’ Mark observes, ‘wear you away like a beach after a series of storms.’ Another character realises ‘how fragile everything was, and how soon it would all be over.’ Through his multiple points of view, Nixon explores the diversity of human nature, the many dimensions that a person relegated to the role of villain may contain. Pat may be a philandering alcoholic, but he is also very protective of his children. Mark is unstable, but he’s also a successful businessman. Despite our best efforts to paint people in ‘a single ugly hue’, this is often not the full story. In The Waters we see the complexity of a family, the many important and secret stories that combine to create a bigger picture.