Sprigs is a thoroughly effective, and thoroughly devastating, description of privileged white males in a society created by and for them. A society where they feel entitled and where the pressure on others to fit in creates compliance and, in extreme cases, monsters. And where social media gives the monsters a platform. The novel is full of deflections, excuses, PR, and reputation-protecting, in response to a specific, horrific, act: the gang rape of a 15-year-old schoolgirl. It is a story of the silencing of a voice, the only voice that matters: “And it was my story and nobody was asking me about my story, they were telling me my story.”
Sprigs starts where most of it continues, in the thick of high school rugby culture, with the St. Luke’s First XV preparing for and playing the final game of the season. We are immediately surrounded by racist and homophobic banter. We meet the boys, including Richie, a Samoan boy in the elite college for his rugby skills, “their ‘token’ as he was semi-affectionately known.” We meet the privileged kids whose influential fathers are Old Boys, some on the school board, all with financial or political influence. We meet the staff, including Karim Hussein, the maths teacher, at a total loss about rugby, and who we later learn eats his lunches cold so not to offend the other teachers with the smell of warmed cumin. We meet Denver the Principal who has risen to his level of incompetence and who delegates most things to ‘Klap’, his overworked and alcoholic Deputy Principal.
We first meet 15-year-old Priya Ganain when she is watching the match with her new in-crowd girlfriends. She agrees to go with them to the after-game party. She is excited and terrified, she must lie to her parents about where she is going, her first experience of alcohol is a full bottle of Chardonnay given to her by one of the ‘friends’. The party is all a bit of a blur, Richie is nice to her at one point, then the alcohol and events take over. We lose her again and we learn of the crime via toxic e-messages, via boys who take what happened as a bit of lark, via those who are appalled by what they have done. And there are those who do not know what has happened but who gradually hear rumours – and then they see the video.
It is Hussein who first brings the video to the attention of Klap and Denver. But the boy whose phone he has confiscated has a very influential father, and the phone itself is locked. From then on nothing is done appropriately. In fact, nothing is done at all to deal with the incident, it is all to minimise, deflect and confuse. Denver gets legal and spin advice. There is media and police involvement. The former patchy and thin, the words of the journalist, Brigid Kelly, being carefully trimmed by ‘legal’ to avoid defamation, and her work being controlled by a male editor only interested in the “hashtag metoo”. The Detective repeatedly given the role of responding to those coming to the police to give information, and to talking to Priya initially and eventually, is Detective Ling, with no experience with juvenile crime but maybe to her superiors the credentials of being a woman and having a foreign-sounding name.
I was wondering if we would ever get to find out how Priya was, and then we did, which was harrowing. Mistrustful of everyone, and in many cases rightfully so, she finds herself on the one hand not believed and the recipient of constant abuse and threats of violence, and on the other an object of pity, or the focus of a ‘cause’ that she feels has nothing to do with her. All Priya wants is for none of it to have happened. She is Tamil, and her family are angry, but they have learnt not to show anger publicly. Priya has grown up knowing not to cause trouble, not to trust the police, to try and blend in when not at home or at the temple. She learns things about her family, things that surprise her and give her a context for what has happened to her, but she learns nothing that will help. When she first ventures out, she walks around with keys between her fingers and a stone in her hand, always keeping an eye out for anyone following her or getting too close.
One of the disturbing things in the novel is the lack of support, and even abuse, Priya gets from some of her school friends. And the horrible non-engagement of the female teachers at St. Luke’s, turning to victim-blaming as an immediate response. One of them having been tasked with taking the boys’ sex education classes, has to water the content down to avoid tricky subjects like masturbation and condoms and sex, “Not her problem she thought, as she packed away her things, She’s done her bit for the year. Sex ed.: tick.” The police take the school computers for analysis and “The amount of porn on there was ridiculous.”
For the boys, the role models of successful men are everywhere, they are the ones who think men’s work is more important than that of women, who believe that anyone slightly outside the image of a ‘good kiwi bloke’ is fair game for, at best, constant put-downs, at worst physical violence, and that when any of their own are in the firing line they rally. They do not let all their hard work count for nothing just because “The boys got carried away.” The role models go proactive: “Defamation is actually a lower threshold to prove than sexual violence”, the justice system is just part of the system of privilege.
What is really moving about Sprigs is how easily Priya’s story is commodified, the video going viral, the online articles attracting comments, the talk-back shows being draw into the deflection campaign. The ‘story’ becomes just that, a story for clicks and attention, the person at the centre becomes lost. There are some who try to rally around Priya, but that just turns into another thing again, it is all action aimed at the school and the boys, not in providing a caring community for her. Tim, the boy whose farm was the site for the party, tries to do the right thing, Deputy Principal Klap does not do the right thing, but does refrain from doing the wrong thing. Richie, weighed down by guilt and regret, tries to reach out to Priya to apologise, but what happened was unforgivable, and he is left just wanting to be back with “… friends and teachers who looked at him as a person and not a marketing opportunity.”
Sprigs is not sensational, it is a careful portrait of an unequal society, and how inequalities affect less-privileged individuals through their social life, their years of education, their interaction with officials in the community, and through any experience they may have of the court system. We leave the book with the voice of Priya, a young woman who we have come to know and whose voice we finally hear. I think everyone should read this book.