Melbourne dominates the pages of Narrelle M. Harris’ supernatural thriller, The Opposite of Life. It’s a force in its own right, akin to New York in Sex and the City. Harris’ geekgirl protagonist, Lissa, is forever roaming the city’s grid of streets and cobbled lanes for bars, food and information.
Lissa is a considerate guide, making spot-on observations as she points out the local landmarks. As she seeks out the city’s secret vampire nightclub, she states, ‘In Melbourne, these days it’s de rigueur for bars to be as obscurely located as possible. If you haven’t gone down two dark alleys, past the bins and maybe a couple of rats, you’re not a bona fide, trendy bar.’ However, she can occasionally sound like a fact book: ‘In its glory days…[the Forum] was the biggest theatre in Australia, but times got tough and it was split into a couple of cinemas…’ and this generic description of public rather than private history damages her credibility as a character. As a result, it is difficult to push through the first quarter of the book, despite the growing body count.
But the novel picks up once Lissa’s potential romantic lead, Daniel, winds up dead. Mysterious and exotic in a Byronic fashion, Daniel is, surprisingly, not a vampire, and so begins Harris’ reinvention of the genre. There’s the customary mythbreaking: her bloodsuckers have reflections; they can tolerate crucifixes and sunlight. But there are other subversions. Take vampire detective Gary, for instance. Socially awkward, pudgy, and still living in his parents’ house, Gary is as far away as one can get from the vampire stereotype. Even as one of the undead, he still gets picked on. More seedy than sexy, more into airport thrillers than James Joyce, Harris’ bloodsuckers are a refreshing alternative to the norm.
If only Harris had rejected her other clichés, instead of depending on them. Toorak ladies, desperate housewives, Brunswick hippies: most fit too neatly in their boxes, and might have felt less hastily constructed if Harris had strayed outside of the lines. With Lissa berating her mother for being too quick to pass judgment on murdered drug dealers, Harris asks for sympathy towards all of her characters, but it’s difficult to feel much towards a stereotype, in spite of tragic events. It is, as Lissa observes, as if ‘the laws of the universe governing the punishment of those who operate on stereotypes kicked in with a vengeance,’ and Lissa’s mother is the only stereotype who manages to arouse pity through the deluge of backstory and interaction.
Perhaps I’m demanding too much from The Opposite of Life. It’s vampire fiction set in Melbourne, a novelty read for even the most jaded Melbourne literary type. A good page-turner with a sassy protagonist, it muses about life and (a lot of) death, and the pros and cons of existing in between. It’s not a literary masterpiece, nor does it pretend to be. But most importantly, it doesn’t try to emulate Twilight, Interview with the Vampire or the Southern Vampire Mysteries. Portraying its vampires as bad-arse and ugly, it puts a substantial stake through all the benevolent sparkly vampire bull that we’ve had to put up with these last few years, and for that Narrelle M. Harris’ book deserves praise of the eternally grateful (but not undead) order.
Title: The Opposite of Life
Author: Narrelle M. Harris
Publisher: Pulp Fiction Press
Thuy Linh Nguyen reads and writes when she can. For more on her literary adventures, visit thuylinhnguyen.wordpress.com.