It’s 1998 in the first half of Hamish Clayton’s second novel, The Pale North, and Wellington has been destroyed by a series of earthquakes. Ash, a New Zealand writer, is compelled to return from London where he has been living by a mysterious voice on his answer machine simply saying “Come back”. He wanders Wellington’s desolate streets ruminating on both the city he’s lost and the lover he lost before he left it – Charlotte – who slips in and out of focus across the pages along with Colin, his best friend and photographer whose desolate landscapes he deeply admires.
As Ash wanders the broken streets looking for what remains, he meets Grace, a woman who seems eerily familiar, and a young girl, who are both living in the ruins of a building. They seem to promise answers, but these answers are never quite delivered. This section is penned by fictional writer Gabriel North in 2010, just months before the devastating Christchurch earthquakes.
The second half of the book disarms the reader by changing tact entirely to a new narrator, Simon Petherick, in Frankfurt, who carefully unpicks Gabriel’s narrative, pondering the author, his meaning, and asking more questions than it answers.
There’s a lot to appreciate and relish in The Pale North. Like Ash, I moved to Wellington after high school, and I recognise that love and longing one has for the first city that really claims them, the city they become an adult in. This is most definitely a love song to Wellington. And to yourself as you once were, young and fresh with new love, as much as it is to Charlotte, Ash’s mysteriously absent lover.
Like Clayton’s award-winning first novel, Wulf, this novel is concerned with the power of narratives and the meaning inferred by random events crashing together to create a collective meaning larger than the sum of their parts. The novel constantly reminds us of the inevitable distortions of history recalled and rearranged. Essentially The Pale North is a ghost story, a haunted, layered meditation that refuses to wrap up the narrative in a conventional way, instead ending on more questions which “[throw] open a door onto a room with more private sunlight”.
It’s seductive writing, layered with loss, meaning and a great deal of beauty.