Sodden Downstream, by Brannavan Gnanalingam
Reviewed by Rachel Pommeyrol
Less than 24 hours. This is all the time it takes for the human journey between Sri Lanka and New Zealand, between past and present, between the two different kinds of survival depicted in Brannavan Gnanalingam’s fifth novel, Sodden Downstream. Never superficial but deeply touching, the characters enable the reader to feel the truth of what is being told. To that end, the author uses different stories of people he has met, his parents’ and his own experiences to build this novel.
While a violent storm befalls Wellington that prevents people from leaving their houses, Sita receives a call from her boss who orders her to defy the weather and come in to clean the CBD skyscrapers. The Tamil Sri Lankan refugee can’t refuse to leave her tiny flat in Hutt Valley, and she has to try to reach the city centre, somehow. This is recounted with fascinating twists and absolute precision in the facts, the places and the characters’ feelings.
Primarily, what makes Sodden Downstream so elevating is the unexpected humanism of the book. It speaks about immigration, work, social welfare, education, housing, poverty and prostitution - issues often abstract and political - but here, they are poignantly embodied by the characters. In doing so, Brannavan Gnanalingam entirely challenges the reader’s stereotypes, to make him see these issues from a new angle. For all that, the characters are not simplified, even when the boss has the exaggerated traits of an excessively selfish person. The novel puts every part of society on an equal footing, and offers a series of portraits that depict human strengths and weaknesses. Ultimately, and in the face of natural events, all they can do is help each other.
Furthermore, Sita’s past and present interweave to build her future over the course of the adventure, which serves as an initiatory journey for her. She is reminded of the violence of her former life in Sri Lanka, with her baby in her arms. She thinks about her new life in New Zealand, where the fight is different – it has become a fight for work, and for cultural integration. She feels safe for the first time, - even if she can’t sleep during the night, even if the work is hard, even if her husband can’t find a job. Sita has been hurt, physically and mentally, but she learns to trust this new country, for the sake of her son. This novel is first of all the telling of a strong and brave woman, and a love declaration for New Zealand.
Brannavan Gnanalingam’s writing is also impressive. The rhythm is rousing, leading the reader through the pages, through the past years and through the 24 hours of the narrative. He uses humour and sensibility with equal skill. The author proposes a real artwork, epitomised by the wonderful chapter entitled “10:48 pm.” One long sentence retraces Sita’s thoughts about the Lagoon. It is a chapter that leaves the reader almost breathless. There are other opportunities besides chapter “10:48 pm” to feel captivated by this novel, but this is its apogee, the reason why people read books.
The accurate analysis of the society and the fair decryption of people make Sodden Downstream a novel that deserves to be read by every Kiwi to better understand their country - and by everyone, to better understand humanity.
Sodden Downstream, Brannavan Gnanalingam, Lawrence and Gibson, NZ$ 29.