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Book Reviews Polaroid Nights - Lizzie Harwood

Book Review: Polaroid Nights by Lizzie Harwood

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.

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Book Reviews She's a Killer - Kirsten McDougall

Book Review: She’s a Killer by Kirsten McDougall

Victoria University Press, NZ RRP $35.00

She’s a Killer is a wild ride. Stylish and a bit kooky, this Kiwi dystopia is shrouded in the banal and familiar world of the near future, and it bristles with contemporary fear. Kirsten McDougall’s feisty plotting and ever-present wit creates fresh and spicy characters. The drama of the novel forces us to reëxamine the way we view the world, and gives a stark reminder of the troubles we shall soon face.

Set in an indeterminate future where inequality is even more starkly pronounced than the present day, New Zealand is welcoming ‘wealthugees’ (wealthy immigrants from climate-ravaged nations) while Palmerston North riots and locals starve. Māori land is sold off, yet again, by the government for wealthugee survival communes, and people like Alice pay for water by the litre. On the whole, life continues as normal. There are influencers, ultramarathon runners, eyeshadow. It’s catastrophic, and yet, the same.

Our protagonist, the not-quite-a-genius Alice, a woman in her late-thirties, stuck working a job she hates. She’s got glib and ready answers as to why she, with her soaring intelligence, isn’t successful and happy. Instead, she’s malnourished and living in the bottom half of her estranged mother Louise’s delapidated Wellington house. Her only companion and source of joy is a plant growing from a crack in her kitchen bench.

Alice’s one friend, Amy, is married to smarmy architect Pete, and through his connections they’re preparing to move onto the survival commune with their three children (and more sauerkraut than anyone could conceivably consume). Alice worries that Amy is growing distant, and in her distress and loneliness, her childhood imaginary friend, the quirky and insightful Simp, returns. Simp is the only person Alice can truly talk to – due to her estrangement with her mother Louise, they communicate only by Morse code. It’s an imperfect mode for nuanced and insightful conversation, and Alice knows they ‘would die misunderstanding each other – but perhaps that is not unusual.’ Alice should worry that she would die misunderstanding everyone around her: she’s cold and detached and more concerned with how to pay for Botox than about anyone’s suffering in this harsh new world.

Then she meets Pablo, an attractive wealthugee. He takes her for dinner at a restaurant guarded by gun-toting security, buys her wine and brie and the food of her dreams. In response to Pablo’s request to know more about her, Alice’s answer is only one example of McDougall’s impeccable comic timing: ‘Can I answer this in gifs?’

Under the spell of Pablo’s wealth, Alice agrees to be the temporary guardian of his daughter, fifteen-year-old Erika, while he returns to China to negotiate the release of his ex-wife from a kidnapping. Once Erika arrives, the novel’s pace quickens, and Alice is drawn into an elaborate plot to save the planet. Her loyalties are tested and her sociopathic tendencies explored through a amateur-level plot of assassination and upheaval.

The prose tends toward unpretentious, clear and direct, though it’s never boring – every page is studded with spiky jokes. McDougall’s humour is the perfect shade of black. But don’t be fooled – this isn’t merely a funny book. She’s a Killer is deadly serious: wake up or suffer the consequences for your choices.

A glorious monologue by Erika about halfway through summarises the book’s message succinctly: ‘We can see it all around us, people who go without basic things and a few people who own enough stuff for ten households. Economies built on activities that harm us and the water we drink, the air we breathe. But what can we do? We all see it but we do nothing. We’re powerless in these systems we help uphold. Things have gone very wrong because we’re too afraid, too stuck in how we do things. To see how we might do it differently.’

McDougall asks how can we remain blinkered to a world in obvious calamity? How can we continue to live in the ways that we do, understanding the harm our current world does not only to the environment, but to our fellow humans? Our comfort is at the expense of another’s suffering, and we can no longer pretend we are not aware.

Alice and Erika are exceptional: they are geniuses (or at least, one IQ point away). They understand each other and the world in ways other people do not. Alice and Erika also know the limits of their ability, of their understanding, which is not a simple or easy accomplishment. It’s a ‘painful thing’ to know what it is we do not know, ‘which is why most people avoid it.’ There are parallels to the magnestism of conspiracy theories that abound right now. In the face of much uncertainty and fear, people cling to anything that gives them a sense of ‘knowledge’, because the alternative – confronting our ignorance and lack of knowledge – is far too frightening. The resurgence of interest in horoscopes in recent years is part of this, a desire to understand and be guided, instead of wallowing in the uneasy and terrifying world of free will and the unknown.

Alice’s ex-boyfriend Nick is an ‘Influencer’, and his lifestyle is an insightful take on the real world of ‘Wellness experts’. Nick’s social feed spouts wisdoms like: ‘Walk away from anything that gives you bad vibes, there is no need to explain it or make sense of it.’ Wellness Influencers and mindfulness advocates believe this is how you come to be truly at peace within yourself, but it can also be a way to deny the reality of the world, to turn a blind eye to the state of the climate crisis, the pandemic, and to the innumerable injustices of people around the globe. Alan, Louise’s partner, believes that if everyone meditated, we would ease the ‘discord’ and we would live ‘in harmony with the land.’ No doubt meditation has many benefits, but it is true that only by turning and facing these undeniable issues head on will be able to make the changes necessary – if only we don’t leave it too late.

Toward the end of the novel, without revealing any spoilers, Alice and Erika sleep overnight in the bush. During the night, Alice wakes to find a stag standing over them. This is one of the few quiet moments in the novel where the action slows, and the narrative has a moment to breathe, making it a highlight and a memorable moment in the rush of the action. It also features this wonderful sentence, ‘Above its head were antlers like the branching crown of a mad king.’

The unnerving appearance of a wild beast in an otherwise urban novel was timely and unsettling. If the time of humans is coming to an end; this stag suggests perhaps animals might rule the world in our absence. She’s a Killer is fun and fast-paced, and it’s possibly (one point off) genius.

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Book Reviews Isobar Precinct - Angelique Kasmara

Book Review: Isobar Precinct by Angelique Kasmara

The Cuba Press, NZ RRP $37.00

In her ambitious debut Isobar Precinct, Angelique Kasmara speculates about the myriad ways we heal from loss and trauma, what autonomy people should have over their bodies, and if it’s possible to accept regret for the way we have lived.

Isobar Precinct is science fiction that’s flirting with literary fiction – and don’t be fooled, this is an enormously difficult undertaking. The rapid pace of the twisted narrative might mean compromises in other areas of craft, but at no point does Kasmara lose hold of the tension or her grip on the bewitching beauty of language.

The protagonist, Lestari, is a sardonic tattoo artist with a thoughtfully decorated body, including a tattoo of Alice from Wonderland and an ouroboros (the latter one of the oldest known symbols of alchemy, representing the concept of eternity and endless return). She works at an oft-burgled studio on Karangahape Road with Frank. She teaches a self-defence class with Tom de Lacey, a married father of two that Lestari desires from afar. A young street kid named Jasper comes to live in under the stairs of her studio, and he dreams of being a physicist or a tattoo artist. Her father, Echo Cassidy, disappeared when she was fifteen, while her mother, Saraswati, is a distant yet caring alcoholic, who can’t (or won’t) tell her much about him. When Frank, Jasper, and Lestari witness a brutal murder in Symond’s Street Cemetery, things begin to unravel.

Why is there no evidence at the scene of the crime? A shaky cellphone video is all they have to prove what they saw. Who is breaking into their tattoo studio, and why? Questions build, piling in, making little sense. All the questions lead Lestari to Roydon, her slippery ex-boss, her father Echo, and a dodgy medical trial of a new drug, known now by the street name Q-tips. It’s not too much of a spoiler to say the novel features time travel, because the true stakes of the novel are far greater than the structural device employed to let it play out.

The first half of the novel is carefully constructed, putting in place the world the second half will demolish. Kasmara uses a beautiful feature of doubling, where from a central point in the novel repetition begins to occur. This symmetry allows for some wonderful play with the characters, and there’s an action scene straight out of the Christopher Nolan film Tenet in both halves of the novel that toys with the tropes of time travel.

Isobar Precinct is atmospheric – I could taste the ashy grime of the city, smell the stink of the streets, see the glittery lights of K’Rd sparkle like a bauble. It’s the antithesis of suburban fiction, the sort from writers such as Liane Moriarty and Jodi Picoult – this is urban realness, dark sci-fi. It’s intricately plotted through different timelines and worlds, peopled with an abundance of characters. It could easily spill out of control. Instead, there’s fun and threat in equal measures, and the kooky reality of the world where people have names like Cinnamon and Dante.

Kasmara’s firm grasp of her craft delivers sentences buzzing with punch and zing. The novel jumps between punky chill language to the sublimely lyrical. In particular, the descriptions of time travel allow Kasmara’s sometimes terse language to show off its glittering underbelly: ‘Prismatic display of visual hallucinations. Followed by the sensation of the room splintering off into shards. A separation of mind and body. Blast off.’

It’s a novel that has the gritty drama of a police procedural that sweeps into the surreal and fantastic. Heavy on symbolism, Lestari’s tattoos reminded me of the movie Memento, with Guy Pierce. Isobar Precinct is a whirlwind novel that asks Lestari the question we’ve all pondered at some point: how to be happy in the imperfect present?

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Book Reviews I Laugh Me Broken - Bridget van der Zijpp

Book Review: I Laugh Me Broken by Bridget van der Zijpp

Victoria University Press, NZ RRP $30.00

Learning how to live in the discomfort of the unknown fuels the plot of Bridget van der Zijpp’s third novel, I Laugh Me Broken, a book that explores the burden of genetics in our past and our future, and whether there’s a moral duty to know our fate.

Ginny’s recently engaged to a caring yet vanilla young man named Jay. Intrigued by a story about prisoner of war Count von Luckner escaping Motuihe Island in 1917, Ginny moves to Berlin to research a book about his life. This plan’s derailed by the news she receives from her cousin Zelda: news about her mother, who committed suicide when Ginny was younger, leaving her with a grief-stricken father, who, despite remarrying, buried his pain in the bottle. This information forces her to re-evaluate what she knew of her past and her parents, because no matter what Ginny’s step-sister Mel might wish to believe, Ginny’s mother didn’t kill herself to get away from her husband: she’d inherited Huntington’s disease.

A progressive brain disorder, Huntington’s affects movement, mood, and cognition. It’s progressive, and symptoms usually begin in your thirties or forties. Ginny might have inherited the gene for this disease from her mother – or not. The implications of this pulsate through her life, causing her to reconsider the choices she’s made and the ones she is yet to make. Should she take the test or not? Does she marry Jay or not? If she has only a short time left until she begins to show symptoms of this incurable disease, does she want to spend it living with one man, or should she be experiencing more of what the world can offer?

She thinks she needs time and space to think, so she leaves Jay behind and travels to Berlin alone. Her step-sister Mel lives there, though she’s away working most of the time. Ginny sublets a room in an apartment with Frankie and Florian and meets a colourful cast of new people in rapid succession: Bozorgmehr, an Iranian philosopher; Cristoph, the sexy upstairs neighbour; Pascual, a friendly Spaniard; Yvette, her flatmate Frankie’s Australian friend; and Lena, her cousin Philippe’s daughter.

This long train of new people are central to the novel, offering Ginny insight into other ways of living: not only is Ginny deliberating whether to be tested for Huntington’s, she wondering whether marriage and settling down is the right path to take. Should she choose hedonism or restraint? Does sexual freedom offer her freedom for the rest of her life? These questions are universal, but the looming threat of Huntington’s lends Ginny’s concerns more urgency. Although these strangers and new friends help Ginny discover truths about herself and the world, there’s a sense as a reader that I could see the behind-the-scenes work that is usually invisible. Conversations and interactions such as these are vital for a first-person narrative, so it’s a shame that they didn’t all feel more natural.

Van der Zijpp utilises the German language to expand on Ginny’s feelings and experiences with a sense of fun and thoughtfulness. German has incredible words for feelings and sensations that we don’t have in English, making it a true delight for writers. One of the words, Vergangenheitsbewältigung – the process of coming to terms with the past – is a central theme for the novel, clearly played out with Ginny coming to terms with the truth of her parent’s relationship and her possible genetic inheritance, and Germany’s refusal to forget, as seen in the memorials and museums in Berlin. This interplay between personal and universal is mostly successful, and there are touching scenes as Ginny learns more about her mother and her parent’s relationship. In another sense, it’s clear that Ginny only scratches the surface of the historical legacy of Germans and Germany, leaving her ‘the clueless one stumbling over the historical traps.’

Of course, the real engine of the book is powered by Schrödinger’s Cat: as long as Ginny doesn’t have the test, she both does and does not have the gene for Huntington’s. For most of the novel, I was just like everyone else Ginny meets. I was adamant she must get tested, that I would definitely get tested. Until I considered the reality of knowing, truly knowing. We all live in a constant state of limbo, unsure how many minutes, days or years we might have left. Would I take a test now to find out how and when I might die, even without the threat of an inherited disease? Would you? When the creeping threat of a ‘new flu thing in China’ begins to cast a thin shadow over the plot, you understand that it isn’t only Ginny living with the threat of imminent death. It’s in this messy unknown in which we all live: our tomorrows may never come, and we should be sure to hold close those we love.

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Book Reviews Crazy Love - Rosetta Allan

Book Review: Crazy Love by Rosetta Allan

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.

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Book Reviews Loop Tracks - Sue Orr

Book Review: Loop Tracks by Sue Orr

Published by Victoria University Press, NZRRP $35.00

If you Google Loop Track, the first page of results is now, understandably, about the new novel Loop Tracks from Wellington novelist, Sue Orr. The next page takes us to walking and tramping websites: Veronica Loop Track, Mangamate Loop Track, Lindemann Loop Track. A trail that loops around, neverending. If you don’t notice the exit, you might loop forever, retreading the same ground, making the same mistakes; and although on each rotation things may be slightly different, you aren’t able to move to a new direction.

A contemporary, realist novel, Loop Tracks introduces us to naive, dreamy, sixteen-year-old Charlie. She’s pregnant, in the worst year to be pregnant, 1978. The Auckland Abortion Clinic has been forced to close. Charlie won’t – can’t – give her parents the name of the boy, and they extend themselves in many ways to arrange a flight to Sydney, so Charlie can access an abortion.

The plane is delayed. It sits on the runway for hours. Hungry and nauseous, Charlie exits the plane and misses her appointment. She must go away, hide herself, and when the baby is born, she’s not given the opportunity to hold him, to even see him, before he’s taken to his adoptive parents. They name him Jim, and Charlie’s expected to return to life as though nothing has happened.

The novel then shifts to present day Charlie, living in Wellington with her grandson, Tommy, a neurodivergent teen in his first year at University. Due to her past trauma, Charlie is stuck deep within her track, a behavioural groove. Orr uses subtle imagery to demonstrate this throughout the novel, in passages like this: ‘On circular knitting needles it’s possible to lose sight of where one round ends and the next begins. It’s important to mark the spot, and I’ve done that. I’ve knitted to the little purple marker, but instead of moving to the next line of the pattern I’ve repeated the same round, over and over, over and over.’

The novel sifts between 1978 and 2020 after that, each year’s political and social landscape informing the other. The safe and comfortable routine Charlie and Tommy have cocooned themselves in begins to unravel: first, with the arrival of confident and captivating Jenna. She introduces Tommy to her musician sister and her loop track music that he finds mathematically hypnotising, but it’s her unsettling questions about Tommy’s father that starts to knock Charlie out of her groove. And then: Level 4 Lockdown.

Lockdown. Many novelists have expressed uncertainty about how to incorporate the pandemic in their novel, yet Orr seems to have sensed immediately how it would enhance her novel. In the quiet of her home, Charlie begins to reconsider her past and her present. She comes to understand her parents in a new way, and to forgive herself. It’s a time of reflection. As she revisits her past, Charlie is able to cast new meaning over the layers of old meaning. Familiar memories are revised to create original ideas. She’s forced to recast the narrative of her life. She starts smoking again, finds unexpected desire. The reawakening of Charlie through this forced departure from her safe and sheltered normal is satisfying, and even when she’s snooping through someone else’s things like a nosy child, you can’t help but like her.

Loop Tracks delves into bioethical issues like abortion, adoption, euthanasia, and the COVID-19 restrictions placed on New Zealanders during the 2020 lockdowns. Generational and subjective differences come into play as the characters discuss these issues, and how they believe they should be regulated. Orr places the characters under pressure, giving these issues weight and urgency. Loop Tracks is a confined space in which to consider the value of life, our own and others. How much agency should we have over our own lives? How many freedoms should we reasonably divest in order for another to live? Of course, this is a balancing act we have deliberated over for centuries, and in 2020 we were asked to dismantle our ideas about what our lives should be in order to help others.

Orr’s prose is both dry and playful, and some sections when Charlie is reflecting on herself as a young woman break into poetry. Charlie’s obsession with words gives the reader an opportunity to examine meaning and word choice throughout the work. Both style and rhythm infuse the novel with a brilliant sense of New Zealand, and Orr interrogates issues close to our hearts. Secrets and shame, family and lovers, Loop Tracks scoops all this and more into its orbit, creating a gripping portrait of a woman’s life, the harm she’s caused, the hurt she’s suffered; her mistakes, her glories, her oft-repeated wrongs. A family drama and a social commentary, it’s a book that will repeat over and over in your mind even after the final page has been read.

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Book Reviews Greta & Valdin - Rebecca K Reilly Uncategorized

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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Book Reviews The Disinvent Movement - Susanna Gendall

Book Review: The Disinvent Movement by Susanna Gendall

The Disinvent Movement by Susanna Gendall is a debut novel of poetic force, laced with a Parisian je ne sais quoi.

This novel isn’t heavy on plot but do not be deceived: Gendall knows how to make magic. The novel is structured into eighty-one fragments, none longer than three or four pages (most are only a few paragraphs long). This carefully crafted series of miniature stories form a web of meaning we are invited to decipher. Simple statements are twisted and turned to examine their multitudes of meaning: as the nameless narrator herself says in regards to throwaway remarks, ‘People threw away so much these days.’ Not Gendall. Even the most mundane can be transformed under her gaze. She gathers together her threads of story like precious treasure with skill and a confident dexterity.

The Disinvent Movement is captivating from the first page and doesn’t let up. Eking out details and connections, we find ourselves engaged in the story of a woman from New Zealand now living in Paris. A woman entranced by borders, boundaries, tunnels, insiders and outsiders, Amazon fires, insects, plants, death, how to find yourself, how to fit in, how to get in. Migrants and refugees and the climate emergency are all alluded to – though never with an interrogation. This novel doesn’t do that, and I’m glad it doesn’t. It would spoil the dream-like haze of this book, the hypnotic tension that hovers over the pages.

The narrator doesn’t quite know where she begins and where she ends, who or what she is. Other characters are telling her she’s like someone else: ‘It was another case of me not acting like myself.’ The Disinvent Movement captures the idea of mutability, of acting or imitating a personality, and the ever-changing essence of our beings. Who are we and can we be different? ‘Some things you just couldn’t do,’ she says early in the novel, but then again, why not? Life isn’t just one thing – it’s many things, many places. Different languages and definitions, different people. Lovers, friends, mothers: each important roles yet they could be filled by anyone. People are replaced and recast; she continues each day trying to understand the hidden mysteries of the world.

She feels out the outside, kept apart from others. But, ‘Once I was out, I wanted to get in,’ she says, and then later, once she was in, she wanted out. Out from a physically violent marriage that echoes her mother’s life. The narrator tries to leave her husband again and again. It takes at least seven attempts, she tells us, for people to leave these relationships. The difficulties in leaving abusive relationships have been well documented in research, and Gendall expresses the problems in exacting prose: ‘Each morning I knew I was closer to leaving. This was not so much about walking out the door as it was about dismantling a whole system of belief.’

Along with her marriage, our narrator begins to question all the implicit rules of society. ‘How had we all just gone along with this whole thing anyway?…Why were we trying so hard to play by the rules?’ Like Kate Chopin’s Edna and many other examples of women in fiction pushing back against the pressures of expectation, Gendall’s protagonist imagines a world where she doesn’t have to abide by the rules. What if, she imagines, things could be disinvented?

This idea leads to the creation of a small protest group – The Disinvent Movement. At their meetings they discuss what they would like to rescind from invention. Comedy ensues yet the pensive mood of the novel is maintained. Our narrator rebels in small ways, looking to remake herself, or the idea of herself. She embarks on a love affair with a man she knows only as Maurice’s friend and takes action in the night to disinvent cars. The Disinvent Movement is hilarious too, in a quiet way. Gendall digs into the dry dirt of human experience, and finds the humour hidden there.

The story fragments often end with double entendres. Gendall refuses to make it neat and tidy. The reader is forced to reinterpret what they’ve read, to reimagine every possible and plausible meaning. With echoes of Livinia Greenlaw and Jenny Offill, The Disinvent Movement is a charming novel with barely a word out of place, prying into questions of how to be, or find, ourselves – if there is such a thing.

Victoria University Press, Contemporary Fiction, NZ RRP $30.00

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Book Reviews Sorrow and Bliss - Meg Mason

Book Review: Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason

Sorrow and Bliss is the second novel by Meg Mason, a New Zealand writer living in Sydney. On the longlist for the prestigious Jann Medlicott Acorn Award for Fiction at the 2021 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards, it’s the story of a woman called Martha: her hollow highs, her life-changing lows, her depression and suicidal ideation. It’s not as grim as it sounds – Mason’s writing is blisteringly funny, that’s also chic and modern in its execution.

The novel follows tall, blonde, and brilliant Martha through the years around 1994 to 2017, as she navigates life with an undiagnosed mental illness. She’s a classic unreliable narrator, and story moves around in time in fragmented anecdotes, jumping from her fortieth birthday party to her teenage years without skipping a beat, leaving stories unfinished at times, relying on the reader to make the connections and to understand the truth.

Throughout the story, Martha lives in Shepherd Bush with her father Fergus, a failed poet, and her mother Celia, a sculptor. The house is a chaotic nest of love and dysfunction. Martha and her sister Ingrid are close in age, and so alike they could be twins. Their relationship functions as the common twin trope in fiction – so similar and yet so different, so close and yet so disparate. They bond over their anger at their mother’s cold and callous nature, her alcoholic benders, and her sporadic attempts to kick out Fergus before taking him back again. Only there’s something very different about Martha, and it moves her away from Ingrid and everyone else.

Family is important in Sorrow and Bliss, and Martha’s painfully naive about their secrets. Most of the story revolves around Martha’s immediate and extended family: her aunt Winsome, uncle Rowland, and cousins Nicholas, Oliver, and Jessamine. Celia’s sister Winsome has married into wealth and lives in Belgravia, and we come to see the relationship between Celia and Winsome mirrors that of Ingrid and Martha. Each person in this family is in their own way self-centred, shallow, and cruel; although occasionally, they show each other the incomparable tenderness of unconditional love.

However, Martha’s challenges force her family to reassess how unconditional love works. How can you provide support in the face of unrelenting pain and illness? Would it be easier to give up on someone who can’t seem to ‘help themselves’? Many people will read this novel and see the dynamics of the Russell family mirroring their own journey with a family member who requires deep and unending support and understanding. It’s difficult and confronting, but an important story to tell.

While Sorrow and Bliss is about Martha and her journey to understand herself and her family, it’s also about the nature of love and being wanted. Martha lives in a world determined by her relationship to men: her well-meaning father, ill-fated first husband Jonathan, the semi-magical friend Peregrine, the ever-present second husband Patrick. Which men give her what she wants, and which men don’t. Who desires her, and who doesn’t. What an indictment of the way women often live! Finding a way through the patriarchy. Wondering constantly about who is admiring us. Who is loving us. Who might give us what we want. It’s a man who gives Martha what she wants: a psychiatrist, who gives her the diagnosis that makes sense of the lifetime of sadness; and it’s also a man who can’t give her what she wants – her second husband Patrick, who Martha assigns as the demon in her life because of his failure to diagnose her and to see through her lies and make her a mother. At times I ached for Martha to find a woman with whom she could find some peace, yet by the height of the drama, she’s pushed all the women who might support her away.

Patrick is but a shadow of a character in this book: Martha admits as much when she realises she doesn’t once think about his thoughts, his beliefs or his experiences. She’s awful to him, really. Everyone’s awful to him. I couldn’t understand why he continued to be associated with the family. But again, we are only hearing Martha’s interpretation of events. The unreliability of her story comes into play again and again, and it’s frustrating and real and dripping with sorrow as we see characters misinterpret one another.

Because we never hear Patrick’s side of the story, we never understand why he loves her, just that he does, and he’s willing to go through nearly anything to be with her. The love story feels both shallow and so powerful it shatters your heart into tiny pieces.

In a novel with many vivid scenes, Sorrow and Bliss sometimes missed an opportunity to give us more emotional power. A few scenes told in summary or flashback would have had a different impact if they’d been shown as present action. One example of this is when Martha mentions how an email made her so angry she repeatedly slammed the pointed end of her clothes iron into the wall, creating a triangular pattern of dents above her desk. Removing us from that scene, by virtue of mentioning it in only in a few lines during another scene, holds us at arm’s length from Martha and the truth of her lived experience. We’re only given snippets of this fascinating story, and I desired to be let inside the controlled narrative and see what was hidden.

It’s her story, but who is Martha, really? I’m not sure we know her truly, even at the end. We rely on what she’s told by other people, because Martha hides her true cravings and ambitions from the reader and her family. We’re told she’s beautiful – less so than her sister, but in a better way: ‘Father said, ”They might look at her first. But they’ll want to look at you for longer.”’ Several characters tell her she’s brilliant and clever and funny, although there’s little evidence of this in the book. Sadly, due to her illness, her potential is given no room to develop. She’s bounced around from doctor to doctor, provided with prescriptions like a medical guinea pig. What a difference it would’ve made if she’d been diagnosed earlier! Plenty of women can attest to this issue: in reality, women are diagnosed years later than men for almost all illnesses. Lucky for Martha, she has family with money – she’s never homeless, never abandoned. Her autonomy is oppressed under the dictatorship of her illness, but through it all she’s loved and wanted and safe.

Heavy on the sorrow, light on the bliss, Martha is irrational and irritating, heart-warming and relatable. Mason’s writing is fresh and stylish, creating an intimate novel that feels utterly, wonderfully contemporary. It’s bitter and funny with off-hand British humour, which makes up for the times Martha is frustrating enough to throw the book across the room.

Sorrow and Bliss is about legacy and inheritance, the genetic debts our parents pass down to us; it’s about homes and the memories that can be created and misremembered between their walls; it’s about being forgiven and forgiving, about forgetting and about holding each other close. It’s about personal crisis and the damage to those around us, it’s about parents and children and the lives we lead, as opposed to the lives we dreamed of. It’s about desire and being wanted, and about being truthful about what we want in return.

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Addressed to Greta - Fiona Sussman Book Reviews

Book Review: Addressed to Greta by Fiona Sussman

Bateman Books, NZ RRP $34.99, Contemporary Fiction

It’s a storyline straight from a romantic comedy – a socially awkward woman, living alone with her chicken and her spa pool, receives a phone call telling her that her late friend has bequeathed her an all-expenses paid holiday. Destination and length of trip: unknown. Said woman is flustered. Can she do it? Break free of the routine and structure that she’s sheltered herself with and leave New Zealand for the first time?

In the sweet and endearing novel Addressed to Greta, the eponymous main character is lonely, frightened and ashamed of her large feet. Walter, Greta’s best friend and her unrequited love, has died and left her a trip of a lifetime, ‘an opportunity to step away from the world you know.’ Greta has lived in Auckland for over twenty years and has never heard of Tiritiri Matangi; she’s never been to the South Island, so this trip is a daunting prospect. She’s sheltered in a way that seems unbelievable. She’s utterly alone, even though she’s never without her the memory of her controlling mother, recalling the things she’d said: gems like ‘Thinking positive thoughts will not pay for the power’, and the nasty ‘If only people knew what you were really like.’

Greta’s unable to cast off her mother Nora’s admonitions and criticisms, even though her mother died five years ago. Greta is scared to make herself a life that includes her dreams and ambitions, preferring the security of her quiet and unfulfilling life. But this trip, from a friend who knew her better than anyone, forces Greta to quit her boring job, to leave her rental property in Devonport, to apply for a passport and take a long haul flight to her first destination: New York City. It’s the first stop on a whirlwind tour, and we get to come along for the ride.

Addressed to Greta is the third novel by Fiona Sussman, a former GP turned fiction writer. Her second book, The Last Time We Spoke, won the Ngaio Marsh Award for Crime Fiction in 2017. This new novel is a departure for Sussman as well as Greta. Sussman ventures here into cosy and warm territory, in a story that deals with large issues in familiar and comfortable settings. This book will appeal to readers of Charity Norman, Nicky Pellegrino and Sarah-Kate Lynch.

Sussman’s writing is strong and evocative – the novel glowed whenever landscapes or cityscapes were described. With international travel off the cards this year, anyone desperate for armchair travel will find plenty to satisfy in this book. Beautiful food is eaten – Greta loves to eat, especially cake and chocolate – and interesting strangers – morticians and architects and pilots – start out as acquaintances, but become her friends. Greta’s earnestness allows her to experience the world in a way that garners the envy of some more worldly characters. She changes from a woman who blushes at magazine covers promising to tell you ‘Ten Risky Ways To Excite Your Lover’ into a woman who initiates a sexual encounter for the pure joy of the experience.

Sussman keeps the momentum up throughout the novel, even when it could have easily stagnated with plenty of flashbacks and memories alongside the present day action. I’d hoped for more pit stops on the holiday, but appreciate the novel would be twice the length if Greta travelled any longer. Sussman sidesteps technology to bask in the romance of hand-written letters and pay phones. There’s something touching about the voice of Walter speaking to Greta through the letters he has left her, and his presence feels strong despite only featuring briefly in flashbacks.

Greta’s trip is a lens through which we can all learn new things, whether they are about the impermanence of humankind, the value in opening oneself up to the world, and the essential understanding that ‘ You cannot change what has already happened…only what you choose to take with you.’

Sussman’s created an oddball in Greta Jellings, a character who suffers from verbal diarrhoea and innappropriate admissions. Greta is lovable in many ways yet incredibly blind to her own naivety; she’s upset when someone calls her Gretchen yet she tells a Rwandan man named Daniel that she thinks he has ‘a white man’s name’. She’s horrified by other traveller’s rudeness, but has no boundaries herself, particularly when questioning Daniel about the genocide; she’s angry at another woman’s prejudice against homosexuals, but she judges nearly everyone she meets about all sorts of things, finding herself shocked when they don’t fit into her stereotypical assumptions. While the characters in the book were always ready to forgive Greta her transgressions, it might be more difficult for some readers to do so.

Greta seemed older than she was supposed to be – twenty to thirty years older, a woman with outdated ideas and ettiquette. Her choice not to have a mobile phone fit with her character, however her disconnect and ignorance of the world around her seemed at times far-fetched – the only way to explain it would be to say that Greta has never used the internet, which in today’s world, doesn’t seem possible.

While the book is cut through with humour, mostly through Greta’s faux pas, the novel is at it’s heart a story about the burden of solitary life. Greta has no one – her former neighbours changed their personalities as well as their address, and she mourns the loss of their companionship; her mother has died and left her diaries full of secrets causing her more pain; and Walter, her best friend and the man who could never love her as she loved him, died from liver cancer, complicated by HIV. She’s worried about disappointing people, so she pushes them away, even when she’s hungry for touch and for real connection. On her travels, she discovers a profound truth: ‘People were meant to be with others. Even the elderly stationmaster defined himself by his significant other. There was power in the plural – the couple, the family, the team, the town. Shared decisions, shared grief, shared joys and burdens.’ And so Greta breaks down her barriers, little by little.

It’s also through travel that she learns another lesson, one that travel is especially skilled at teaching: ‘For a second time on the trip, the significance of Greta’s life zoomed to blend with a bigger backdrop. Her story was just one pixel in a vast canvas. It was oddly comforting, knowing that nothing mattered quite as much as she’d always believed it did.’ Against the pain and suffering of millions around the globe, Greta is able to put her own challenges into perspective, allowing herself some grace and dignity to change her life, to determine for herself what the next step should be.

Addressed To Greta is a charming novel that traverses the globe and the intricacies of human relationships. I hope many readers find comfort in her travels, the happiness she manages to find, and her search for the perfect pair of shoes.