The Cuba Press, NZ RRP $37.00
The inaugural winner of the NZSA Laura Solomon Cuba Press Prize, Lizzie Harwood’s Polaroid Nights is a funky romp through Auckland in the 90s. Playful in style, this novel has a crime thriller vibe that’s both sweet and gritty.
Betty Moonshadow Asphalt is a ‘hospo’ – she waits tables at the fancy Carcassone. Betty’s flatmates Alabama and Faith are hospos too, and the three women like to work hard and play hard – shifts at work are followed by late nights skipping around the many clubs of Karangahape Road and High Street. These nights usually end with vomit or black outs, but these girls are young, able to shake off the hangover and go to work the next day. They know all the bartenders by name, and the bartenders know them. It’s raucous and messy.
Only a new element of danger has started to taint the scene: someone has started breaking into flats around Auckland, raping women who are at home alone. The Psycho, as he’s known, is based on Malcolm Rewa, and the novel was inspired when Harwood’s own flat was targeted by the notorious criminal. In Polaroid Nights, everyone’s a bit worried about the Psycho, but none more than Faith, who’s given Betty an ultimatum: if she can’t pay her rent and her share of the electric bill by Sunday, she needs to find another place to live. Faith’s angry that Alabama and Betty are out late every night, leaving her alone and vulnerable in the flat – ‘If you’re not home, front door locked, watching crap telly by 2.05am every night, then I’ll get a man to move in who will be.’
Can Betty be home by 2am every night? Can she make enough in tips to pay her outstanding debts by Sunday? The nightly rounds of Quick Oblivion shots don’t make it seem likely. And when Betty bumps into her ex, Truman, later that night at Eros bar, things go from baad to worse, and Betty’s world starts to unravel. Betty and Alabama hate the cop assigned to the case, Simpkin, and decide to investigate the murder themselves. Harwood takes her plot and tests its limits, creating some brilliantly dramatic and funny scenes. One in particular, a confession at a funeral, has a slight farcical element to it – but Harwood sets the tone at the perfect pitch, and it never leans too far into silliness.
Though the material is dark, there’s a frothy lightness to Polaroid Nights that elevates it from trauma porn. There’s plenty of black humour and description of fashion, and Betty’s inner monologue keeps it from getting too deep, though at times this comes at the expense of a more thoughtful dissection of the crimes the book was inspired by.
Harwood’s language and stylistic choices keep the energy high – ‘Margaritas beget margaritas and you feel like you are now sitting on your red raw eyes with your butt peeled, waving in the air’ – and because the violence in the novel is never described in graphic detail, the lurking fear is always outshone by the comic absurdity of the main characters’ antics.
There’s a strong sense of bringing a time and place alive in Polaroid Nights: the characters are fully realised, from the chefs to the dodgy taxi drivers to the random people out drinking at 3am. Polaroid Nights is a fun frolic of a crime caper, a transporting novel about women’s vulnerability.