Review — When I Open the Shop

Reviewed by David Hill

“The format is intriguingly diverse: emails, texts, passages of verse are scattered throughout. An immediate, coming-at-ya present tense keeps the plot belting along. Dissanayake knows when to pause, to leave things for the reader...”

The blurbs for When I Open The Shop pant that it's ''angry....compelling....takes flight into surrealism''. It's also much concerned with alienation, and flecked with urban grit. So far, so first novel.

As well as that, it's funny. Funny as in subversive and incongruous, as in touching and entertaining, as in chuckaway, shoulder-shrugging, dare-I-say-distinctively-male humour. A rare and refreshing quality in Aotearoa's debut fiction, says this reviewer, shaking his grizzled head.

Yet it starts with loss and grief, especially the wearing, dragging side of that emotion. It may be only five or six months since his Mum died, but dissanayake's mostly unnamed young protagonist remains burdened with remorse and anger, plus the physical exhaustion of getting restarted. Even the shit stains on the carpet still have to be cleaned up.

Nevertheless, he wants to open a CBD eatery, with seating for eleven on plastic chairs. It's meant as a tribute and a redefinition, and I'll mention straightaway that food — its preparation, consumption, associations, ingredients, comforts and cultural markers — is a recurring motif in this really damn good story. As our man uncertainly, apparently unsuccessfully, gets underway, his shopping lists become life lists; memories and wishes and a spangle of characters accrete around him.

We get a road trip over the Remutukas – in a car that leaks, naturally – plus resultant road-kill(ing). There's Covid and its attendant lockdowns, with sneaky ways around the latter to secure a gig at a Bledisloe Cup Test and endure racist reactions. We meet comely Aisha, whose face the protagonist sucked off (his phrasing; vivid, eh?) when he was at school. She's one of a cast of young thrusters who spark and snap through the plot.

Events hurry towards an ending where, though ''this harbour city is kin of mine,'' the semi-anti-hero may travel to Japan. Or Korea. Or even the US, carrying his backpack of part-assimilated experiences with him. Potential reunions and reconciliations shape. It's neatly ambivalent.

 All through, the funny bits keep glinting: the five-litre plastic buckets of salad for Mum's funeral; the verbal small-arms fire with friends and flatmates; the offhandedly major choices. ''I went on the dole because the concept of work seemed too foreign.'' Nicola Willis and Louise Upston would turn puce if they ever read this book; so would Winston Peters, who gets a dishonourable mention in it. All this is good.

That harbour city two paragraphs back is, of course, Wellington. Sorry, I should have been specific about that. Dissanayake certainly is; we get Dixon Street, the City to Sea Bridge, the Central Library, Jervois Quay, the sky, and the weather. It's closely-seen and clearly-rendered; it lifts place into participant.

When I Open is very much a young man's world-view. (Second pause while my white locks tremble again.) Almost anyone middle-aged or older is ''sulky....pot-bellied....stinking of death''. A heap of DVDs and music tracks get referenced; the brand names of laptops and drinks are itemised; peers declaim in absolutes; our pretty reliable narrator has an almost obligatory puke in a bar. Dialogue is authentically desperate-cool; the author has two good ears for Young-Speak. The focus is insistently Me! Me! Me!, with the protagonist occupying not only centre stage, but most of upstage and downstage as well. That also chimes touchingly true.

Several words about the writing. There are a few grandiloquent bits: ''He told me everyone is from somewhere else if you go back far enough'. But hell, isn't that a young voice, too? Some of the dialogue is eager to tell us a lot. The author does enjoy his cadences, his verbal themes with variations. He enjoys them too much? Maybe, on occasion. But a crafted, textured style builds.

It builds to be one of the book's real successes. The format is intriguingly diverse: emails, texts, passages of verse are scattered throughout. An immediate, coming-at-ya present tense keeps the plot belting along. Dissanayake knows when to pause, to leave things for the reader. He manages some excellent imagery: ''Mesh-covered buildings flap like ball gowns in the wind''. And, rather less lyrically, dog crap sliding down the side of a plastic bottle ''like the remnants of Maggi 2 Minute Noodles''. Oh, romesh, I'll never be able to have them for lunch again.

I'll make the bleeding obvious point that this novel reflects an accelerating, admirable, multi-ethnic element in our fiction, sometimes with pleasing slyness: ''You always need to let white people know where you're from....even if it's made up.'' I note its relevant motifs of arrival, belonging / separation, departure. I like its ending, where not everything is sorted out. Dissanayake is a guy to watch, and I'll enjoy doing so.

Reviewed by David Hill

David Hill is a New Plymouth author. His books for young adults and teenagers are published in several countries.