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Book Review: Greta & Valdin by Rebecca K Reilly

Victoria University Press, RRP NZ$30.00 Contemporary Fiction

This debut novel exploring the particular nuance of modern romance and the dynamics of an eccentric and worldly family sets itself apart immediately with its animated style and biting observational humour. Greta & Valdin, by Rebecca K Reilly (Ngāti Hine, Ngāti Wai), is set in the author’s city of residence, Tāmaki Makaurau, with swift diversions to Wellington, Buenos Aires and Medellín. Reilly’s zingy and feisty prose makes Auckland seductive and intriguing, a surprisingly perfect fictional setting.

The titular Greta and Valdin are the two youngest siblings in the Vladisavljevic family. Valdin is pining for his ex-boyfriend Xabi (who is also his uncle’s husband’s brother, which oddly seems to be not much of an issue for anyone), and Greta’s in love with Holly, her fellow tutor at the university. Their family, a Māori-Russian-Catalonian blend, is detailed on a character list. This is helpful because there are two Gretas in this novel, joining the swarm of Greta characters in recent New Zealand fiction.

The chapters alternate point of view between the siblings, cleverly building on each other’s experiences. Greta’s headstrong and bursting into adulthood, sometimes more clumsily than she would like. The scenes with Greta and her friends were highlights – they felt animated and warm. Valdin, her older brother, is off-beat and meticulous. He’s left his job as a physicist at the university to host a travel television show, where his awkwardness makes for great content. Both Greta and Valdin are romantics at heart, and they share a dry sense of humour. Their attention to detail feels distinctly personal, and Reilly seems to revel in canny descriptions, indiscriminate in her skewering of other people’s habits and lifestyles. Character’s clothes are reported with lush prose, creating a precise image to bring the character to life. The urban setting and the fascinations of youth brought to mind Bret Easton Ellis’s Glamorama, with its excess and focus on relationships within a material world.

The blurb indicates this novel owes a debt to Shakespeare and it’s easy to see the similarities to his great romantic comedies. Greta & Valdin delights in comedic moments and provides narrative space for characters who don’t conform to gender binaries. There’s a sublime openness to sexuality in the novel, a glorious world in which less attention is paid to the gender of your lover and more to status of your relationship. All the characters are multi-faceted and thoughtfully developed, providing the novel ample room to explore racial issues, love, sex, and family secrets. Although Reilly’s technique of telling the stories of the older family members through conversation felt contrived at times, on the whole she neatly untangled the family spectacle through narrative choices that felt organic and intuitive. The blending of cultural influences in the extended Vladisavljevic family meant plenty of scope for leaning into and subverting tropes and stereotypes.

There are a few writers who can make you laugh out loud the way Reilly can. Her comedy can be dry, but also sharp and icy: her tone is nimble and fresh without succumbing to chatter. There aren’t, however, many writers who can draw out sexual tension in the same powerful way. In a scene partway through the book, when Valdin is talking to a lover on the telephone, I was so overwhelmed I had to put the book down to take a breath, Wow. Able to push scenes to the limit for dramatic purpose, Reilly makes modern romance exciting and compelling in a way that reminded me of Sally Rooney.

Greta & Valdin is an amusing and vivacious romantic drama led by two hilarious and engaging queer main characters, and I don’t think you could ask for much more from a novel in 2021. Slyly political, this novel will charm you and keep you begging for more. While at times the two protagonists were hard to tell apart – sometimes I had to check who was the narrator – the pacy plot and quirky family dynamic more than make up for it. Greta and Valdin are more just two parts of a whole – together they form a unique friendship. Their bond is special and touching, and the novel deftly surveys the brother-sister dynamic, and how families can support and befriend themselves. With her frenetic and vibrant prose, Reilly is a fresh and daring new voice in New Zealand fiction.

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