Published by Penguin Random House, NZ RRP $36.00
Auckland based writer Rosetta Allan has mined her past for her third novel, Crazy Love. It’s a punk love story set against the political backdrop of economic policies that keep us down and out, a brutally dark novel about poverty, second chances, and mental illness. Written in language dripping with violent desire and undercut with a savage humour, it’s Allan’s own life redrawn as fiction.
Structured into three parts, ‘Before’, ‘During’, and ‘After,’ the novel follows Vicki’s attempt to reinvent herself. First, a quick prologue gives us a glimpse of what lies ahead. Reader, it’s grim. Written in the third person, from Billy’s point of view, it sets you up for something a little different from what we end up navigating. After this short sharp reveal of his perspective, the novel shifts to Vicki’s recollections in her diary.
In the Before, Vicki yearns for a better life. Only she’s stuck with Loser Boyfriend in Napier, living in Dire Straits, the Commercial Building, with a rag-tag bunch of misfits struggling to get by week to week. The characters in this section are bright and distinct, and I would’ve liked to read more of that time. But Vicki doesn’t want to stay there, stagnant in gritty poverty. She tries to escape a few times, but she’s stymied by abortion and illness. Until she meets Billy Cooper, and the escape route suddenly appears.
Billy’s charismatic and intelligent, brilliant and offbeat. Vicki writes him poetry on scraps of posters. They share a particular aesthetic sensibility, and the attraction brings them together despite the consequences. After a series of mishaps, bar fights and robberies, they take their chance and leave Napier for Auckland.
Soon they’re pregnant and getting married. The novel skips then, from the early 1980’s to 2012, for the During. Vicki and Billy have experienced huge success – a mansion by the sea filled with art by celebrated New Zealand artists – and then it all fell apart in the global financial crisis. They’re forced to sell the mansion, and buy a tiny house in Kingsland, mortgaged up to their ears. And Billy’s not good: he takes to living in the garden, stealing road signs, spray painting John Key’s Kumeu office demanding the IRD pay back the 1.2 million they owe him. His increasingly erratic behaviour isolates Vicki from many friends, and it’s here the real themes of the novel come into play.
Vicki loves Billy. Their love has plenty of passion, but it’s full of lies and deceits, omissions and deliberate distractions. When Vicki’s pregnant and waiting for their wedding day, she discovers Billy Cooper isn’t his real name. Later, Vicki lies to Billy, luring him into a false sense of loyalty, pretending she buys into his plan of suicide so he feels supported. She doesn’t feel like she can tell him the truth, even when she wants to convince him not to do it. She remains silent, because ‘so much could be undone if more were said…Love is endurance. Love lies, too.’
Is love endurance, though? And what exactly should it endure?
Should it endure manipulation? And is manipulation okay, if it’s due to someone having a mental illness? Should it endure threats and insults? Should it endure domineering, controlling behaviour?
At a dinner party, a friend suggests Vicki’s co-dependent, that she can’t live without Billy. Vicki defends her love as interdependence, as mutual support. That they both give the other what they need to thrive and survive, in safety and with love. There is a lot of submissive behaviour, though: Billy chooses Vicki’s clothes, he determines when and how she works, and when she gets a job without his knowledge, she hides it from him. When Vicki wants to piss him off, she considers buying a pair of black Levi’s, because she knows he doesn’t like them. She details the things she gave up for him, but they are all material: leather, mini-skirts, jandals. She never calculates the other things she gave up for him, the intangibles, though it becomes clear Vicki would give up anything and everything for her love. It’s admirable and romantic, in a Romeo and Juliet kind of way. Vicki would die for Billy. It’s romantic love to the extreme. How many of us have loved in this way? Should we love this way?
Some of it’s difficult to read. At one point, he rails that she’s not more proactive, more aggressive. Then, he’s telling her that the thing he loves the most about her is that she is ‘so compliant.’ He loves that she is his ‘little sheep.’ He threatens to leave her many times, and yells at her, ‘There are plenty of women who would show me the respect I deserve.’ You want Vicki to leave him, to not endure anymore. And then, every time, Allan rescues you from the darkness with acidic humour that cuts through even the most morbid of circumstances. When Billy talks Vicki through his plan to hang himself from the avocado tree, taping his mouth shut so his false teeth wouldn’t fall out, she says, ‘ ‘Well, fuck…How would I ever enjoy making guacamole again?’ ‘
We don’t want to give up on our loved ones, ever, especially those who are suffering from mental illness. But how much should love endure? Other people would’ve buckled under the pressure of Billy’s sadistic outbursts a lot earlier, and he would’ve been on his own, with no one to help. Her love saves him, and in the act of loving him, she opens herself up to an understanding of love that many of us would shy away from.
Vicki’s experience seems to blame the system. She can’t get the compassionate help and care for Billy that he needs. The healthcare system in New Zealand, driven by political agendas, is always in desperate need of more funding, and it lets Billy and Vicki down again and again. Their story would be different if Vicki could’ve accessed help for Billy easily, in a way that wasn’t as brutal and extreme as an armed offender call out.
Crazy Love is about music, fashion, wealth, poverty, love, and betrayal. It’s about true commitment – through thick and thin. Allan writes with a rough-edged lyricism, her prose pointed like a knife, ready to pierce when necessary, and at other times angled just so: and you slip away from the edge, into deep reflection about how much you would, or should, endure for the ones you say you love.