Gritty K' Road: A review of Isobar Precinct
Angelique Kasmara’s ambitious debut novel, Isobar Precinct, cuts right to the action by opening in 2015 with what appears to be a violent murder in Symonds St Cemetery. Witnessed by Lestari, the tattooist protagonist, her steampunk business partner Frank, and homeless teen Jasper; the incident triggers a dizzying chain of events that embroil Lestari in a twisty mystery involving her missing father, a string of break-ins at the tattoo parlour she owns with Frank, and shady trials of an experimental drug.
Martial arts expert Lestari is tough and fiercely independent, and her dogged refusal to avoid danger frustrates her married love interest, Tom, a jaded, self-medicating cop. They teach a self-defense class together and are thrust together (pun intended) during Tom’s investigation of the burglaries at Lestari’s K' Road shop and the disturbing incident she sees at the graveyard.
Tom doesn’t always do things by the book, and rather conveniently shares a classified police file with Lestari. The pair team up to solve the crimes that not only threaten Lestari’s safety but ultimately challenge her perception of reality. The plot takes a further sinister turn when Lestari uncovers decades-old evidence of illegal clinical trials of a dangerous drug, Quantanxrmine, which has found its way into the transient community in the story’s present.
Set in a vividly drawn Tāmaki Makarau, Kasmara captures the lively chaos of gritty K' Road in familiar scenes, with lines that feel freshly minted:
There’s a fairy princess in a cloud of pink upchucking into a bin next to me. The pedestrian light flashes green and we cross, pink-cloud billowing past me to catch up with her friends dawdling on the footpath, guzzling bubbles out of plastic tumblers. I’m out of sync with the rest of them – Karangahape Road’s just shutting its eyes now. Drag queens, drunks, art students are all stumbling home, only a handful caught by the red-streaked sunrise, which licks us awake again for another burst at immortality.
Kasmara’s descriptive ability is deft and assured. In this passage, the drab outer limits of the city are keenly observed:
Dead cars leaking fluids onto kikuyu, scraggly pittosporum hedges pushing up the remains of coke bottles, plastic trikes, Barbie cars, Hell pizza boxes. Suburbia stretching four bus zones, neighbours in jandals and linty track pants buying cigarettes and milk and Lotto tickets from the dairy.
Isobar Precinct is peopled with troubled characters that are all broken in some way. Lestari’s father with mental health issues vanished when she was a young girl. Tom’s outwardly privileged childhood was scarred by domestic violence. The orphaned Jasper chooses the streets over living with an abusive stepfather. Daddy issues, thwarted desires, alcoholism, and other empty escapes are recurring themes. Kasmara portrays her characters with a clear-eyed empathy; the precarious lives of those who have fallen between the cracks and exist on the margins are particularly poignant.
Minor characters are idiosyncratic and defy stereotypes; homeless Jasper dreams of being a scientist, policeman Tom pops Oxys. The heroine Lestari has a wry, spiky persona that masks a vulnerability and compassion that inspires loyalty in the people around her; she is someone we want to root for. She is driven to find the missing pieces in the puzzle of her life by literally diving into the past.
This is what connected me most to the story: what would you do differently if you could go back? Kasmara tackles this universal question with sensitivity and humour. How does one avoid losing people? The dearly departed, the one who got away. The turning points in one’s life that we all wish we could change.
The story moves at a cracking pace; the writing has an almost breathless quality. At times I found the breakneck pace disorienting, although other readers may find it thrilling. I would have preferred to have seen some of the denser chunks of exposition more seamlessly revealed, in particular the drug trials backstory. Still, Kasmara is undeniably a writer of considerable talent and skill. Her command of language and dexterous ability to shape the narrative in surprising ways is impressive.
I deliberately chose to start the novel without reading anything about it prior. At first, it seemed to be literary fiction but then shifted into the speculative realm, which isn’t usually my cup of tea. However, Kasmara blends the genres well, and I was drawn in. The fantastical elements of the story are engaging and fun to read. There’s a surreal scene where Lestari is at the Local, a world between worlds and a place I wanna hang out and have a beer. Lestari’s snake tattoo slithers off her body and made me think of the film Memento, and how ink can be a way to stamp time and events on oneself, to remember.
Kasmara has created an original and striking first novel. It’s epic, bold and cinematic. In Isobar Precinct, time is a slippery snake that gets under your skin; it shifts and moves, it comes full circle. It is alive.
Isobar Precinct is published by The Cuba Press