Andrei Reti was born with his amniotic membrane covering his head, a caul. He grows up having been told this means he will always be protected from drowning. He has multiple escapes from water, and often sees first-hand how water can destroy and take lives without such protection. But Andrei doesn’t see his protection as a blessing, as for every escape he knows the caul will take a “huge price”, he considers it has “infected my life”. In the midst of life, how do we tell a blessing from a curse?
Andrei spends all his time reading and Answering to the Caul has a picaresque feel, with Andrei moving from town, to country, to city as he moves through the various stages of his life. He lives alone, in small families, in big families, in shacks, in posh houses, in tropical resorts. Andrei always feels different from those around him, rather than experiencing his life he “hungered for the narrative” and wants to understand the arc and denouement of each chapter. He feels cursed and having learnt that “… what goes up must come down. It encouraged me never to strive … it just wasn’t worth it”.
Andrei’s outlook makes him a passive character. His story often involves crime; a dairy heist, illegal betting, arson, growing drugs, buying drugs, selling drugs for medicinal and recreational purposes. But Andrei sees the crimes as expressions of lost love, of guilt, of providing for your family, “Drugs were just money in a compact form”. He doesn’t really engage with events on a mundane level, he undergoes various initiations and the weight of the caul means he always expects the worst, “I believe that like fruit in a fruit bowl, all good things turn bad if you leave them long enough”. The most shocking crime in the book is the one perpetrated by his school mates. And amidst all the tragedies in Andrei’s life we learn that he “can’t write about the worst things”, so, unsettling as things are, we are getting an edited version.
Andrei and the reader are aware of him as a minute person in a vast universe, just a small part of the pattern he is trying to discern. There are some lovely descriptions of environments, the New Zealand bush, the beach, the farm, the starry sky. Andrei’s separation from the world is enhanced by his connection with the dead, those whom he has known, and those he hasn’t, through dreams, visions and objects. His dead mother mixed with Botticelli’s Venus, a dead cousin reaching to him via a doll. For him life is a mix of fantasy and fiction with the odd intrusion of reality.
The plotting of Answering to the Caul appears straight forward but becomes quite complex and satisfying. The writing is at times steady and at others thrilling, there are periods of time just passing and those of frantic activity. With Andrei’s living in a half-world of fiction, his first-person narrative is almost Dickensian at times. He refers to himself as “a sluggish fellow … an unpromising young fellow”, and he drops in phrases like “Let me digress here for a moment”. It is a book about growing up, about grief and fate, and about the burden children can carry when they feel guilt for events that are in no way their fault. Even the end of fleeting moments of beauty appear to Andrei as “yet another Eden I had been expelled from”.
Andrei is the central passive character in the novel, with some vivid active characters as his foil. There is Antares, the young woman Andrei meets who is creating her own reality, she shares Andrei’s affinity with stars, water and reading, they run a bookshop together, until the caul draws him away. And there is Dallas “with his green cat-like eyes”. For a brief happy time, Andrei had “a fallen warrior at my disposal” in Dallas. And it is news of Dallas which finally breaks Andrei’s episodic journey forward, calling him back to the answer to his always present question: Is there a plot to my life, or are events just random?
Intrigued? Read Answering to the Caul and find the answer. With a young main protagonist, it is suitable for both adults and young adults.