Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 31, 2015

The Pale North (2015), by Hamish Clayton

The Pale North The Pale North is the second novel of Hamish Clayton, New Zealand author of Wulf which is one of the most memorable of books that I’ve read since taking up blogging.  (See my review and a Sensational Snippet). It was too much to hope for that its successor could be quite as splendid, and The Pale North is not, but it is an interesting book.  The judges for the Ockham New Zealand Books Awards thought so too, because they longlisted it for the 2016 prize.  It is, however, a most awkward book to discuss without spoilers, because even the way the book is structured is a spoiler of sorts.

The contents page lists two titles: The City of Lost Things, and In Dark Arches, subtitled, when you get to it, ‘The Ghosts of Gabriel North’.  Begin reading, and you find yourself immersed in the horror of a city destroyed in 1998 by earthquake – and it’s not Christchurch (which suffered its catastrophe in 2011), it’s Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city.

On my first morning in the ruined city, when I walked the collapsed streets, I felt as though I were walking through roads in the Third World, or the last book of the Bible.  A war had somehow been declared there, a curse or a judgement, made in heaven, had fallen and landed in those streets.  All about me the disaster lay.  Wide pools of dirty water had collected between broken buildings; piles of rubble had inundated and erased the streets. The roads had been parted as easily as sheets and beneath them the raw dark earth had opened into deep clefts.  The cracked footpaths were now meadows of smashed headstones.  (p.13)

The narrator, named Ash, has come back to Wellington as if summoned on the night the quake struck.  He wanders through the desolation in an eerie quiet, meeting almost no one, barely cognisant of relief efforts in the white tent refuges that have sprung up to protect the survivors.  He meets an enigmatic woman and a child, but they vanish without trace when some orange-clad rescue workers arrive.  He resurrects nostalgic memories of a lover called Charlotte and a friend called Colin.  (The brilliant cover design by Keely O’Shannessy is illustrative of a photographic installation created by this Colin, and there are exquisite renderings of his photography which make you long to see how it might look.)

But before long, the novella – for that is what it turns out to be – shimmers with strange and inexplicable disappearances in this ghostly city.  A journey to recapture a visit to a church finds only a building that’s been a ruin too long for anyone to have been inside it.  While the rational mind explains the obliteration of an entire street and its buildings as part of the clean-up process, other events and the ghostly characters tease at the mind.  There is no resolution.  It’s compelling to read, but it’s mystifying too.

Part II is a complete change of style.  Narrated by a Simon Petherick in Frankfurt, it purports to be – and very successfully presents itself as – an academic deconstruction of the novella, (which was found serendipitously in a box in a German museum).  This pseudo-essay (which even mentions Derrida) investigates potential sources of inspiration for Gabriel North, the presumed author, and how his life experiences might or might not feed into the novella – and also other pieces of writing by North that we, the readers of this book, have of course not read.  It begins with an episode about the disappearance of Percy Fawcett, an explorer of the Amazon who really did exist, and it goes on to relate the life experiences of Gabriel North, including his interest in Laurence Aberhart, a real-life New Zealand photographer, as the inspiration for the Colin of the novella.   In doing so, In Dark Arches explores myth-making; the European tendency to force its own imagery into the cultures of others; cultural appropriation and how even reading a work in a certain way makes the reader complicit;  and more besides.   This part, while interesting in its separate parts, I found mystifying.   While I understood the points the narrator was making, none of them seem particularly new to me and I am not at all sure why Hamish Clayton created this narrator to do this, nor why he brought the book together in this way.

I like to feel confident that an author can be trusted to know what he is doing, but I suspect that I’m not the only reader struggling to find a coherent way to deal with this book.  There were fragments in Part II which put me in mind of Patrick Evans’ satire on the academic literati in The Back of His Head (see my review), but they were not playful in the same way…

Other reviews are at the NZ Herald and at Booksellers NZ.

Update: this interview at Stuff NZ explains what Clayton was trying to achieve:

“I wanted to write a novel that was comprised of two parts, that had a beguiling ghost story and then someone else trying to write an essay about that, trying to figure out what was going on,” Clayton said.

“It was about exploring two distinct literary registers, a love story and a ghost story on the one hand, and a more restrained, essayistic voice on the other.”

Yes.  But, it’s an uneasy marriage within the covers of the same book, IMO.

Author: Hamish Clayton
Title: The Pale North
Publisher: Penguin New Zealand, 2015
ISBN: 9780143569268
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond

Fishpond: The Pale North





  1. […] you can read my thoughts at Goodreads). The Pale North by Hamish Clayton (Penguin Random House) (See my review) Reach by Laurence Fearnley (Penguin Random House) on my […]


  2. […] but you can read my thoughts at Goodreads). The Pale North by Hamish Clayton (Penguin Random House) See my review Reach by Laurence Fearnley (Penguin Random House) See my […]


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