Archive for the ‘Christina Neuwirth’ Category

Amphibian

January 16, 2019

Christina Neuwirth’s Amphibian is a first novel from a new press, Speculative Books, which mainly specialises in poetry. It’s a small book – at 124 pages it could be classed as a novella, and in physical form it loses an inch at each edge to the average paperback – but it overflows with imagination. The premise is a simple one revealed in the staff email with which it opens:

“I am writing to inform you that, after the latest Sales Review, the revenues from the fourth floor have been deemed less than satisfactory. It has therefore been decided that the fourth floor will be gradually put under water, effective tomorrow morning, 26th June.”

When Rose arrives at work, having neglected to read the email, she is shocked to discover her feet sinking into the carpet, endangering her new brogues. Her fellow office worker, Siobhan, is better prepared, with waterproof footwear and an assurance not to “worry about the plugs. They had the cablers in this morning. We’re fine.” Initially them staff make the most of the situation, sending paper boat memos racing along with the office fans, but, as office manager, Lynn points out in the first of many water based jokes:

“…this is exactly why we’re going under.”

Though the water level does not rise every day, within a week it is up to Rose’s knees. As with any novel which introduces a surreal, if not entirely implausible, element the reader’s interest is largely in the reaction of the characters. In various ways, their instinct is to manage the change rather than rebel, complaining only in unanswered emails. Lynn, as a representative of management, makes only minor concessions, refusing to abandon shoes as many of the others have done:

“Obviously, Lynn still wore heels. She now had a preference towards those with little straps at the top because she kept losing the others.”

When things begin to float away the staff weigh them down with anything they can find, including stones they bring in from outside, until eventually the desks are bolted to the floor. Office politics consists of a ban on swimming and confronting Jim as to whether he is peeing in the water, a rumour which spreads after he spends an unusually long time without leaving his desk. Conversations about the weather are replaced by discussion of the temperature of the water. Finally it seems one of the staff has been sacked:

“’…she hasn’t been pulling her weight. That’s what the shark said.’
‘The what?’
‘There was a shark in here?’…
‘Yeah, I mean, he was only in for a second, so I couldn’t really see, but I definitely think it was a shark. He was wearing a suit.”

Rose becomes convinced that the shark’s message was actually meant for her.

The situation in the office spills over (I know) into Rose’s outside life in unexpected ways. Not only does it instil a new camaraderie among the members of the fourth floor (Rose only really notices her wet clothes as she heads home), but she becomes reluctant to tell any of her friends about what is happening:

“She felt like she was leading a very boring double life: one where she worked in an office, and another where she worked in a very similar, slightly flooded office, which was otherwise exactly the same.”

This is partly because she predicts her friends will simply tell her to leave, and from the start we are aware she has a dream to (ironically) work on a boat (and a love of surfing). The novel is not only about how workers are treated, but also about how much they will put up with, and while the scenario may seem ridiculous, the tolerance is spot on. All leads to a conclusion which focuses on whether Rose will choose compromise or freedom.

Amphibian is a light-hearted satire but one that should not be mistaken for faint-hearted. Its amusing tone, with moments of laugh out loud wit, do not detract from the seriousness of its depths.

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