Isobar Precinct by Angelique Kasmara – 2021

Lestari, a tattoo artist, is helping her friend and business partner, Frank, install his latest art installation in Symonds Street Cemetery: a statue of St Michael, which Frank will document as it decays and is defaced through time. Jasper is there too, a 15-year-old stray who sleeps under the stairs of their tattoo studio. The trio witness and record a murder …

The beginning of Isobar precinct is a great mise en scene – a cemetery that has been found to hold many more bodies than it should, the idea of change and deterioration through time, weird crime, and the vagaries of memory. Incidents in the cemetery spur Lestari to action, until then “Like most other locals, my default’s stuck on shallow depth of field”. She and the others take their recording of the murder to the Central Police Station. But their memories don’t tie up, the recording is glitchy, and when they get back to the cemetery, there is no evidence of a murder having taken place.

The policeman they speak to at the Station is Tom – with whom Lestari volunteers as a trainer in a self-defence class. He is a jaded cop: “We’re not even the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. We’re just the ones working out which victim to pin the blame on.” Lestari and Tom puzzle over the possible murder, and the repeated burglaries of Lestari’s tattoo parlour. There is an attraction between them, frustrated by Tom’s being married with two young children. They are both part of the local community, able to look at a passing crowd and see not anonymous people, but criminals, victims, people with pasts, people with hopes, or dread, for the future.

As Lestari investigates what she experienced in the cemetery, she discovers that her father, who disappeared when she was still at school, was part of a drug trial for a drug called Quantanxrmine. She finds that over the years there has been a pattern of drug deaths in the homeless and street worker communities in the area. And she enters a very strange and distorted world. Concerns the reader might have that she, and other characters, are a little chill about the various turn of events, are settled somewhat by hints that they are already living with instability.

Lestari and Jasper both have disturbing, recurring dreams. Lestari and Frank suspect a previous employer, who is a drug dealer, is responsible for the repeated brake ins at their parlour. There is passing reference to skyrocketing property prices in Tāmaki Makaurau, and the ease of slipping into rough sleeping. Most of the characters use drugs, prescription or otherwise, and alcohol. The tattoo parlour is called The Golden Ratio – referring to aesthetic harmony – and early on Lestari tells a client she got into tattooing because “Tattoos last forever … I hate change” – ironic given what is to come.

“[I]ts addictiveness stems from the basic human trait of wanting things to be better.” People take the novel drug as they want things to be better, they want to be able to put things right. But Lestari struggles with fate: “Alternate cause-and-effect, rerouting through the old. Make it stop.” She thinks she has saved a young woman’s life, only to discover another has died in her place. She finds a photograph of herself in the pocket of a jacket at a crime scene. She sees people inexplicably recognising one another, and people recognising others in the eyes of people from the wrong generation.

To explain what is going on in Isobar precinct would spoil for others what I found to be an unexpected and invigorating aspect to the story. What I can say is that it is thrilling, with attacks, explosions, and mysteries that become more and more mysterious. I can also say that the events described are open to interpretation – many of them drug-induced, so distorted and shakily held in the characters’ memories. The reader often feels like Jasper: “I took the freaking pixie dust.” We read of a gradual improvement of the stability of the drug since its rough beginnings: “More people are surviving the ride … language to describe the experience – not so much.”

Isobar Precinct – a space closed to traffic, a liminal area between those of equal pressure. Behind all the chaos of Lestari’s experiences are people more glued to their phones than interested in what is going on around them – those who take the drug (or drugs) are in a parallel reality. Added to that reality is the social backstory of the deinstitutionalisation of psychiatric hospitals, and the susceptibility of those on the fringe to be abused for scientific research. The fallacy of informed consent when “He didn’t appear to have any awareness of what was dangerous and what wasn’t. In other words – he was crazy”.

The writing in Isobar precinct is sharp – descriptions of the drug effects hitting Lestari are shocking and quite exhausting. The characters are clear and original. Lestari is strong yet also vulnerable. Her mother, a mix of Balinese, Javanese, and Chinese, is a highly educated refugee who is only able to do menial jobs in Aotearoa – she has taken solace in alcohol. Frank has kicked a morphine addiction he fell into after an accident, and he is very protective of Lestari. Tom self-medicates, a habit stemming from his job, but also from a background of having seen his respected father severely beat his mother when he was a child. And there’s Joe, a young boy Lestari catches robbing the parlour, who is a dupe, and whose death, described in terms of any young addict’s death, is tragic. And there are many others.

The novel is firmly placed in Tāmaki Makaurau: the bustle of Karangahape Road, the quieter suburbs, a protagonist having worked on the Britomart project so “I know about tunnels!”. And despite the frantic pace and bleak subject matter, there are light moments, Tom: “So knowing all this shit is meant to make my job easier? Just shoot me now.” It took me a little while to get into the not-rhythm of the story, but once I did, I was hooked. Isobar precinct is Kasmara’s debut novel and is all the more extraordinary for that.

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