Down from Upland by Murdoch Stephens – 2022

Jacqui and Scott live with their son Axle down from Upland Rd, Kelburn, Wellington. They are both civil servants, she in Police Headquarters, he across the road in the Ministry of Health. Axle has moved from single-sex Wellington College due to being bullied, and he is cautiously making friends at coed Wellington High. Down from Upland is their deeply disturbing story told in three parts.

Their story is one of manipulation: of spouses, of employees, of colleagues, of friends, of children. Jacqui and Scott have a highly considered relationship, sex for them appears to be sympatric masturbation, and they pride themselves on calmly discussing everything at scheduled meetings. They are taken aback at their son calling them boomers – they are millennials. When Jacqui decides to take up her friend Kaye’s offer to take over her young lover while Kaye and her husband move to Turkey, she and Scott agree to open their marriage.

Axle is extremely careful with his school mates in his new environment, eager to fit in after his experiences in his old school. He likes his new friends; they are a sensible and sensitive lot. However, the one thing the kids are not careful with is alcohol, and in good kiwi tradition they tend to binge drinking. Many a gross hour is spent trying to get drunk on low-alcohol beer, which has been supplied in bulk by Scott, whose work at the Ministry is in sensible drinking communication.

The story progresses through various conversations, some of them excruciating, mostly those involving Scott. When meeting with Jacqui about Axle, actions are usually slated to him, and his talks with his son are clumsy, rambling and embarrassing. Scott meets with Linnea, a colleague from work, and thence with Justin from HR. Scott is hopeless at manipulation but a sucker for being manipulated. Jacqui meets with Joᾶo, Kaye’s young friend, and with Rothman, a colleague from her work, who may or may not be hitting on her.

The background to the conversations is an almost Kafkaesque depiction of the civil service. And the broader background is that of the climate crisis. Policy wonks celebrate in the streets like Armistice Day when it is announced the public sector will be carbon neutral by 2025. In Police HQ Rothman ropes Jacqui into a bizarre scheme to get the New Zealand Police meeting the carbon-neutral deadline, a scheme to rival his whacky one to improve the optics on police statistics. Across the road the Respiratory Health Unit is facing a reversal of fortune, seeing the end of the alcohol and addiction stranglehold on funding with the zero carbon targets: “Booze. Alcohol. You’re on the bench.”

There is a general feeling of “There are changes coming and we can either be part of them or end up like the Australians”, alongside the hope that the government will lose the next election. “God, think of MOD! Their whole job is flying planes and blowing things up!” There is a lot of climate activism at Axle’s school, but the students know you only become an activist if you have rich, influential parents. Jacqui is reading a book about Antarctica at a glacial pace throughout the novel, and the reader wonders how much smaller the continent will be by the time she finishes.

The characters are so well, or so awfully, depicted. Scott is quease-making, even for Jacqui: “Her husband might have been overly anxious, but at least he was human”, and she is downright mean to him – when Scott shares a predicament with her, her response: “I’m not saying it’s hilarious. Or even fun. It sounds horrible. I mean fine, it’s up to you but… yeah sorry… it is a little amusing. From a wife’s perspective.” She is super manipulative but quick to take umbrage when others apply the same tactics to her.

Justin is awful, ruthlessly incisive, and has a wink that haunts. Rothman is flat out bonkers – and is rapidly being promoted. Axle is a ray of hope, often appearing to be the only adult in the family, or even in his friends’ families – there is a disturbing interaction between him and very wealthy Ron, the father of Michella, a school mate. But Axle is moving towards activism, both personal and social, in his newly found milieu.

And then there’s Joᾶo. Joᾶo is on a working holiday. He is aghast at the Kiwi drinking culture, the explicit racism, the way relationships are strategised and implemented. And he takes an ephemeral path to just enjoy things as much as he can before moving on – and if that means doing his own manipulating, that seems to be how things are done around here. It is a relief when Joᾶo and Axle have a sane conversation.

Down from Upland is an uncomfortable read that you can’t put down, there is a touch of rubbernecking in reading it – like watching a slow-motion crash. It is the sort of book you hope is total exaggeration, but you fear might be a slice of life. Highly recommended.

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