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Many Worlds

Book Review
The Great Outdoors, and other stories
by John Carstensen (Austin Macauley, London, 2019) 172 pp. £8.99
Reviewed by Vaughan Rapatahana

great-outdoors-coverJohn Carstensen is a Danish-Canadian Kiwi author, based in Waikato. This is his first collection of short stories, twenty-four in all.

They cover not only a range of topoi, but also a range of global locales from Kalimantan to PR China to WWII Netherlands, given that, I find his more hard-boiled quasi-Crump Aotearoan tales the most riveting and rewarding. The lead-off The Phantom, for example, is excellent, not only because of its sustained nail-on-the-head tone, but also because it nails so well young teenage sexuality and selectivity. When Carstensen writes this well – which he also does in several other Kiwiana stories such as one of his earliest pieces, Rocks, and the titular tale, too – ka nui te pai! To his credit also, the author attempts to broach substantial themes ki te ao Māori, as well as to provide a workable glossary as pertaining.

There is a rather curious dichotomy at times in the overall literary ambience in this collection: a sort of crisscross of the puritanical and the prurient, sometimes in the same piece.  I think the back cover blurb sums up this aspect better than I can, as here –

   Carstensen is a Christian writer, though not so much a writer of Christian stories, as his stories tend to be more worldly, carnal and gritty than would sit comfortably with many Christian readers. However, his writing does explore some challenging Christian themes.

The earthiness, then, meets the ethereal. Occasionally preachy, yet more often understated, ironic and even ambiguous in tone, with a penchant for daubing the dichotomies of human nature, rather than a fully blown paint-by-numbers portrayal. Sometimes funny too; Bluto for example is laugh-out-loud precise with its recognizable veteran schoolteacher who has been incarcerated far too long.

I have little more to add. For me, one or two stories read more as slice-of-life scenarios without an obvious denouement or resolution. More, maybe the pieces would have benefitted by being compiled into sections whereby there is commonality of place, for there is some mental realignment required when we travel from New Zealand bush to piratical Asian seas, if we read sequentially. But these are my own idiosyncratic minor points. This collection is no curate’s egg; rather a tasty repast.

Carstensen has conjured up a very good book of tricks. Congratulations. Kia mau tonu ngā mahi pai.