Everything Changes by Stephanie Johnson
THE WEDNESDAY REVIEW
Published: 2 March 2021
Imprint: RHNZ Vintage
Reviewed by Rachel O’Connor
Stephanie Johnson’s 1988 novel The Whistler was written from the point of view of a dog called Smooch. In one of Smooch’s past lives, he is the kuri belonging to Kupe’s wife’s, making the journey to Aotearoa from Hawaiki. In Everything Changes, Johnson’s twelfth novel, another dog gets his day.
The story begins on a midsummer day in 2018, when Muzza succumbs to the temptation presented by the twitching tail of the neighbour’s blue-eyed Himalayan cat, and murders it. His canine consciousness, the first of many voices we encounter in the novel’s shifting array of narrative viewpoints, is a curious and endearing mixture of truncated syntax and visceral sensory detail, and leaves the reader in no doubt of his guilt.
Muzza knows he is a bad dog. Yet Col(ette), Muzza’s doting adoptive guardian, does not blame him; in her view he is a complex character whose behaviour can certainly be explained by some trauma in his troubled past. It soon becomes apparent that the cat’s bloody demise is just one in a series of violent and troubling events in the novel, and one of a long string of reprehensible acts for which there is little retribution, but little resolution either; every character in this novel drags behind them the dead weight of a life that they have not lived well.
Though Muzza’s crime goes unpunished, it provides the narrative’s initial catalyst for change. Their Auckland neighbourhood doesn’t view the fatal attack with the same leniency as Col, so she persuades husband Davie that they need to change addresses – and alter the course of their unhappy life. With their pregnant daughter Liv in tow, the couple takes up ownership of a dilapidated motel and tearooms perched on the northern highway at the crest of the Brynderwyn Ranges. Col plans to transform this into a lucrative luxury getaway, an off-grid, book-filled haven that she whimsically christens Skyreader’s Retreat.
The family’s own retreat from the big city proves far from idyllic. An oppressive air of neglect and abandonment permeates their new home. The accommodation is cramped and dingy and the stillness of the night is rent by Davie’s convulsive coughing fits and shrieking airbrakes from the steep highway. (A real-life monument marks the site where fifteen people died when a bus crashed off the road there in 1963). Restoration of the rundown building is a gargantuan task which they are ill-equipped to manage. Most crucially, their own relationships are as battered and insecure as the physical structure they inhabit.
Col and Davie have weathered thirty-three years of tumultuous marriage, but the death of their disabled firstborn son, and the years of complicated grief imperfectly cushioned by drink and weed that followed, have critically damaged the family dynamic. Any opportunities for intimacy are disrupted by the presence of Muzza, whose protective custody of Col keeps her husband and daughter at bay, and resentful.
Liv has grown up wild and hard: she scorns her weepy and ineffectual mother and manipulates her blindly adoring father. She’s reluctantly tethered to them because she needs a home and support for her unborn baby. Perhaps the most original and complicated character of the novel, Liv’s modus operandi is self-serving self-protection, and her interactions are marked by calculated obscenity, and by a casual cruelty that is dramatically juxtaposed with her internal narrative of doubt and fear, and with her unexpected capacity for love. The shocking circumstances of her child’s conception are not kept a dark secret, but are also never entirely exposed. Liv deals with her own bad behaviour simply by leaving it behind, and those who choose to love her are expected to do the same.
Liv’s unnerving callousness is set in sharp contrast by the delightfully named character of Choirmaster, a seventeen-year-old boy serving out a two-year sentence of home detention on his uncle’s farm nearby. The security anklet that tracks and confines Choir prevents him from forgetting or escaping his own sad history. His smudged patches of memory and reflection grow in lucidity as his mind resurfaces through the residual haze of substance and social media misuse.
When Choir is employed to assist Davie in rebuilding the retreat, they discover that Muzza is the boy’s own beloved Kaos, left reluctantly behind during Choir’s forced relocation. The shared ownership of the dog forms a flexing chain that connects him more firmly to the pālagi on the hilltop. Despite the complex tragedies of his past, Choir is the most insightful and optimistic of the story’s characters, and the person most nearly in touch with the half-tamed, half-hostile natural landscape that encloses them all. His young voice, authentic and intensely aware, was the one that accompanied me beyond the pages of the novel.
Despite the damaged state of both proprietors and premises, the retreat, against all odds, attracts a few guests – equally damaged characters who are themselves seeking a place to escape their unsatisfactory lives. At this point, the novel relinquishes its tight focus on social realism and zooms out to include a wider and less likely world, and the compelling interiority of the core cast of characters is diluted somewhat by the arrival of Aidan, a wildly famous but currently incognito fantasy series writer, Julia, a skeletal anorexic, and Nicky, her chronically distressed mother.
A cascade of alarming and upsetting events ensues, and the resulting imbroglio brings out the best, and the worst, in characters as they each scramble to get what they want and need. Choir and Julia step up, asserting themselves in brave new ways that bring meaningful, transformational change. The others generally continue behaving badly, or at least in the only way they know how.
Despite its grim catalogue of damage and death, Everything Changes is tragicomic in its tone and delivery, which constitutes both a disappointment and a relief. The narrative is laden with a litany of grave social issues that, stacked up alongside the more mundane sorrows of generational chasms, parental failure and loss, and marital delusion and disenchantment, form a fraught emotional topography in which pain and confusion abound. The occasional absurdities of the novel’s action and populace thus provide welcome respite, and the result is something of a literary macchiato, a blend of bitter darkness pleasurably lightened by a dash of soft steamy froth.
Its momentum aided by the very short chapters and constantly changing points of view, the plot of Everything Changes moves at some pace, reaching its natural climax with the onset of Liv’s labour and childbirth. The tangle of narrative threads is unravelled and tied off, expertly if somewhat rapidly, in the final pages of the novel. But poetic justice makes no appearance, perhaps in itself a masterly stroke of realism. We live, after all, in a chaotic and ever-changing world in which happiness is largely an unintended consequence, and where very few people ever get what they truly deserve.
Rachel O’Connor is a writer, tutor and researcher, born in Christchurch. She moved to Auckland in 2014 after two decades in Greece. Her first novel, Whispering City, set in Salonika on the eve of World War I, was published in 2020 by Kedros.