SODDEN DOWNSTREAM by Brannavan Gnanalingam

Shortlisted for the 2018 Ockham NZ Book Awards in the Fiction category, this little book of 178 pages is simply amazing. I read it in one wet Sunday afternoon, could not put it down, it touched me deeply from a humanity point of view, the random kindness of strangers, and probably a realistic look at what life is like for those at the bottom of the economic heap - the refugee -  displaced, damaged, desperately poor, broken.

Sita is a Sri Lankan refugee, living in a state housing flat in Naenae, in the Hutt Valley with her out of work husband who had migrated to NZ a couple of years before civil war ripped Sri Lanka apart. They have a 9 year old son who was only a baby when the war happened. Although it is never said, I expect he is a deeply traumatised child, with nothing ever really done to fully address what he and his mother went through. Sita has a cleaning job, working as part of a group cleaning Wellington's office buildings in the evenings through to the early hours. As you would expect the pay, the conditions, the abysmal attitude of her employer, the drudgery is very grim. The family lives a hand to mouth existence, unable to earn more than a certain amount for fear of having their benefit reduced.

So topical now with the extreme weathers around the world, a storm is on its way to torment Wellington with wind, record rainfall, cold. Sita has to go to work, she has no choice, but the trains aren't going, the Hutt road and roads in Petone are flooded, cars are stranded, but she has to get there. This is the story of that journey, that 24 hours. How is she going to get there? Well, what are our legs and feet for - but to walk. And so she does.

It could almost be comical and whimsical in its purpose - what crazy person is going to walk to Wellington in the dark, in the wet? It really is quite mad. But she has no choice, this is what she must do. She has nothing else, only this job. This book is the story of her walk to work, those she meets, those who help, those who are, in different ways, as desperate as she is. We learn the story of how she came to New Zealand, the war, the violence, the horror inflicted upon civilians as their world is ripped apart and destroyed. As difficult as this day may seem to us in our warm, comfortable little world, I expect for Sita it never comes close to what she has gone through to get to this point, and this is probably what drives her on in her quest to make it to her work.

I loved reading about the setting of Naenae and Lower Hutt, very, very familiar to me, having grown up there. I commuted from the very railway stations Sita uses for some years as a student and city worker, and know the streets very well, a bicycle being my only other means of transport for some years.  The author writes brilliantly about Lower Hutt: I can see the streets, the houses, the railway line, feel the damp, the cold, the slick wet roads chocka block with cars. Most of all I loved the humanity in this book, those who never stop trying to make a day better for others less fortunate, who go out of their way to help, and be kind.

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