This book reminded me of those intensely awkward friendships, relationships, flatmate scenarios where you say yes to something—responding to a momentary appreciation of the person’s good qualities—and find yourself trapped like quicksand, sucked into their world, financially or emotionally entangled, unable to simply walk away and having to painfully negotiate every detail of every interaction.
Set in recent Auckland and the Bay of Islands, we first meet Cynthia lying on a lawn, ogling her fitness instructor Anahera, reading far too much into every tiny gesture and physical interaction. “I have $30,000 and I’m thinking of leaving this dump-hole city,” lies Cynthia to Anahera who pretends not to notice. We see a snapshot of Cynthia’s life in her father’s house, sleeping all day, looking at Facebook and Instagram, and fucking dull boys who don’t share her outlook on entertainment. Then Anahera—a blatant opportunist—shows up at Cynthia’s front door, saying she’s getting a divorce and wants to leave town. Cynthia cleans out her father’s bank account and it’s on. They drive up north, buy a lovely little boat called ‘Baby’, and sail out into the bay.
From here, the tension—sexual, dramatic and violent—builds at the pace of a thriller, cleverly contrasting and playing with the drudgery and domesticity of living on the boat, with lots of attention paid to food, supermarket shopping at the mainland and the peculiar apparatus needed for toileting.
Anahera is smart, resilient and self-sufficient, but emotionally cold and not above grifting. Cynthia fronts as vapid and clueless, but is incredibly persusasive and passively-agressively demanding, cooly hiding her absolute obsession with Anahera most of the time, while willing herself to believe their interaction and affection is far more mutual.
Being in an obsessive state means living on the edges of delusion and reality. Cynthia is pleased with herself when she deletes messages from her father after reading them only once. She knows what she’s done, but the lure of money was the only way she knew how to get close to Anahera and acknowledging this would break the spell.
The comparison to Heavenly Creatures is apt, but the story moves into a different, more one-sided place as it develops, imbued with a solipsism and blundering failure of empathy that is utterly, tragically specific to our present day media-saturated existence.
Midway through, there seems to be genuine affection and even possibility for a romance between the women, reinforced by a cute and touching scene where Anahera flings some romance paperbacks at Cynthia and nibbles her ear, saying she wants to spend the day together. Later, we’re forced to re-evaulate this. Cynthia is utterly unmoored from social reality. She is telling the story filtered through her own desires and a complete lack of reference to other people’s feelings and emotions. This unreliability might be obvious from the start, but we don’t know how all-encompassing this narrative mode is until their foolish scheming leads to a young boy falling to his death on a remote island and we see Cynthia pretending not to notice Anahera praying in panic.
This is where things get really weird. They find a tent on the island. A man walks out of the bushes and says “I am a German man,” then—in case we weren’t sufficiently suspicious that he’s not German at all—he says his name is Gordon.
At this point, the narrative is in thrall to Cynthia’s deranged view of the world and runs with the pretence. First, Gordon is a bumbling, idiot tourist mark for their money-making grift. Then he’s an annoying third wheel, suspiciously infatuated with Anahera. Then he’s familiar to Anahera, someone she knows. His fake German accent lapses. He’s a pathetic creep. He’s fucking Anahera. Anahera wants him.
As Cynthia gets more and more frustrated, her thoughts start to be punctuated with violence. When Gordon first goes onto the boat, she casually imagines smashing his head against the cabin wall. When he makes her think about sex, she pictures ripping his tongue out and shoving it back down his throat.
It’s these aspects of the book that make it such a stunning and impressive achievement. The way the story is told through Cynthia’s evolving perception of the dynamic, from naive crush to carefree obsession, to brutal jealously, with every step of this transformation reflected and reinforced by foreshadowing at the sentence level and a steady ramp-up of Cynthia’s darkest thoughts, anchored by a consistent, flat, deadpan tone.
When Cynthia first tries to murder Gordon by smashing an exercise weight on his head, the climactic action fizzles and she’s left dazed and disappointed, splashing in the ocean in an abortive suicide attempt that leaves her painfully sunburnt instead. By the time she actually murders him, it’s anti-climactic, nearly the last page of the book. It might seem like her shame and rage has overwhelmed almost everything else, but she’s triumphantly glib. “You know he’s just a silly old thing that escaped from the meat factory,” Cynthia tells Anahera, completely effacing Anahera’s trauma and going on to idly wonder, still, “Might they not make love?”
Baby is fast and powerful and wonderfully written and it hits you right in the guts.