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Tabula Rasa

The Opposite of Life

By Narrelle M. Harris, Pulp Fiction Press, 2007

A Review by Kyla Lee Ward

"Why not?" I leaned forward in the chair and he stepped backwards. "Because vampires are killing Goths all over Melbourne, and regular civvies shouldn't know about it? Well guess what, Gazza? There's blood and bodies everywhere, so there are cops everywhere, so it's too late to keep it quiet from the civvies. We're already hip deep in it."
Lissa Wilson, a librarian in Melbourne city, knows she is close to the edge. The abyss that opened inside her upon the deaths of her sister and brother is never really far from the surface, and being dumped by her boyfriend shortly before the library loses its funding for her position brings it just that much closer. It has happened before and always, she has managed to pull back. But this time, on a night out to forget her troubles, she will discover what is down there, gazing back at her.

At times grotesque, at times genuinely beautiful, this book examines the emotional cost of vampirism in all its forms. The form that classic undeath takes here is uncompromising. Love, compassion and intellectual curiosity all demand a living brain and body. The undead can only experience these things through the medium of fresh, human blood, giving rise to their defining characteristics of hunger and mimicry. The longer they survive, in their animate shells, the less of anything else remains to them. But this is not to say that creatures like Mundy or Magdalene are ciphers! Their vestigial adaptation to circumstances and in some cases, deliberate role-playing of what a vampire is expected to be, make for some truly disturbing characters, that Lissa must find a way to interact with if she is to survive and take down a new predator that is upsetting the old balance of the night. Her one ally is the comparatively young vampire, Gary--a truly intriguing creation. Gary would have been a candidate for Aspergers Syndrome when alive and has paradoxically made the transition to undeath with more of his actual personality intact than is usual.

By contrast, Lissa is intelligent and perceptive, but prone to act on impulse when her passions are roused. She is also highly self-critical and subject to black, depressive dives. She makes for a thoroughly engaging narrator of events that grow steadily more twisted and horrific. There are flashes of humour, when the absurdity of her situation hits home.

"You could have used the intercom," he said. "We had someone rig it up so we don't have to do the wall-crawler thing any more."
Not to mention;
"I swore never to look twice at any other so-called deviant sexual practice ever again."
But the heart of this book is an intense and powerful study of grief and how it can warp lives. The moments when Lissa wonders if all the struggle and pain in her own life is really worth anything, are terrifying. But there are other moments, small kindnesses and pleasures. For Lissa, salvation may come as an iced biscuit or a timely phone call, or yes, even a strange, kind-of relationship with a vampire who refuses, for his own reasons, to feed.

Through Lissa' clear, if sometimes frantic voice, the reader receives a strong sense not just of the people (and creatures) she meets, but of the places her investigation leads her. Melbourne has its art deco mansions and decadent night clubs, to be sure, but it also has late-night supermarkets and suburbs of dingy 70s tract housing. The plot segues from one to the other with impressive logic and considerable irony. This is a very rich text, in its atmosphere, its ingenious recasting of vampire myth, and its social and personal themes. For Harris, the great sin is the selfishness that breeds in solipsism--in living humans as in vampires. The ability to form meaningful connections is salvation, but this can only come when an individual faces the reality of their situation and accepts the consequences, as they affect others. It is refreshing to encounter a book that leavens this truism with the fact it can hurt like hell.


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