“When you lived in the city it was strange to think that underneath you, under the immense stretch of hard tarseal and grey concrete, there lay dirt and rocks, vast networks of roots, indestructible creatures and ancient worms, and far below them plates that collided over oceans of magma.” Three damaged people stagger around an Auckland that is dark, wet, polluted, each haunted by a past tragedy and unable to find a way forward.
Jaanvi has lost a newborn son, is still in shock, and when she discovers a ‘reborn’ doll, she bonds with it and discovers it “was the only thing in her life that made sense.” Lucas is leading a predictable and narrow life running a pharmacy, when a pharmaceutical error throws his life, and his perception of himself, into turmoil. Stephen has led a violent and troubled life, has a history of medication and institutions, and his fear of his dead father has turned the father into a threat to everyone, a threat that can only be overcome by Stephen.
The three troubled people only converge tangentially, their stories are discreet, but their environment is shared: isolation, lack of connection, the medicalisation of social problems. Outside their traumatised views are shops, coffee bars, work-dos, inane TV ads and game shows. The world the three navigate is full of kindness as well as cruelty, there are as many people who want to help as who want to harm. As many who want to give, money, shoes, assistance, as want to take away hope and dignity. All three characters want peace, want freedom from their mistakes, from their memories, from their circumstances. But during the nine days of the novel “Freedom smelled like stagnating flowers in a vase.”
Lucas is a bit of a misanthrope: “The other commuters were both offensive in their body odour and infuriating in their constant sniffling. No one covered their mouth when they coughed.” His life is disappointing, he refrains from defrosting food for dinner on his birthday, thinking he will be full of cake from work, but no cake eventuates. His bipolar mother is a major influence in his life, his ex-girlfriend Margaret a puzzle and a regret. He uses the internet to find dates, a process that leads to lying, misrepresenting and loneliness. But things turn worse for Lucas, the ‘Licensed Drug Dealer’, when he discovers a dispensing error, and things start swirling out of control.
One of Lucas’ employees, Ayla, lives for affirmation through social media and is guided by new-age messaging Authentici-Tea teabags. Ayla is friends with Jaanvi. Jaanvi is lost in her grief, we see glimpses of her and her husband, Mark, before their son’s passing-away, he triumphant over assembling a cot, both knowledgeable about the meanings of names. But they are either side of a divide in their grief, Jaanvi is self-harming, Mark putting on a front for his work colleagues: “Andrew winked at Mark. As if to say, Women! Aren’t they silly?” As Jaanvi stumbles through her story we get glimpses of what happened during her days in the neo-natal ICU (an environment the author is familiar with, working as a new-born intensive care nurse when not writing). In her wanderings, Jaanvi and the doll, James, encounter Stephen.
Stephen’s is perhaps the hardest story to follow, as his split from ‘reality’ is the most extreme. He is a rough sleeper when not institutionalised, and he sees people and the world though the lens of his disturbed past. We learn some of his story from his encounters with his various younger selves. Through it all, the reader can discern intelligence and kindness, and as with all the main protagonists, a wish to be understood and included, a wish for calm.
Jaanvi meets another of the many rough-sleepers in the story: “‘It’s weird how some people want to be scared when they’re safe and safe when they’re scared.’
‘I don’t want to feel anything.’
‘There’s always that.’”
Fake baby is a snapshot, it starts at a random time and ends similarly, with characters mid-journey. It sounds like a depressing read, but although incredibly sad it is also very human, there is a glimmer of optimism running through it, and it is not without humour. I was intrigued by some of the elements in the book – I looked up ‘reborns’, they really are a thing – and well-portrayed is how easily our communities, both small and large, can be fractured, leaving us adrift and not feeling real anymore. A great read.