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Book Reviews Victory Park - Rachel Kerr

Book Review: Victory Park by Rachel Kerr

Mākaro Press, Contemporary Fiction, NZ RRP $35.00

The cover of Victory Park, the debut novel by Rachel Kerr, has an image of the Bowl of Brooklands on it, with two people standing defiantly on the stage. Although this novel is set in Wellington, and not New Plymouth, the two figures in silhouette captured perfectly how I imagine the main character, Kara, and her son Jayden: a woman raising her son alone, standing strong against the difficulties of life.

Rachel Kerr, a graduate of the International Institute of Modern Letters, started Victory Park as her MA thesis under the guidance of Emily Perkins. Kerr’s debut is a slim, unassuming novel – yet the short chapters succinctly and carefully deliver a series of intense dramatic events that outline the devastations of deception and the sorrow of disappointment. Published by Mākaro Press, who published the award-winning novel Auē by Becky Manawatu in 2019, the characters in Victory Park are New Zealanders navigating personal triumphs and defeats, and discovering what it means to live an honourable life.

Kara, a widow, lives in a rundown set of flats called Victory Park. Jayden is starting school now he’s five, along with his new friend Rafe, who has moved into the flats recently with his mother Bridget. A friendship builds between the women, an uneasy bond of laughter and disillusion. Bridget is unlike the other residents: she’s wealthy, living in the flats only because her husband Martin’s business is under investigation for Ponzi-like corruption. Everything about Bridget screams money – her clothes, her car, the paintings she’s hiding in her flat – and despite what people say, despite their warnings, Kara grows close to her.

Their friendship is the relationship at the heart of the novel. Romance is peripheral, and usually transactional: Bridget’s entanglements hint at her love of a man’s money as much as his personality. Kara is grieving and unwilling to date, and she’s got enough on her plate, metaphorically. Literally, her plate is almost empty. She’s eking out her meagre funds from her home-based childcare job to keep herself and Jayden fed and warm, but she’s mostly happy. Bridget, on a much-reduced allowance that’s still more than Kara earns each week, is miserable. While Kara tries to move on from her partner Jimmy’s death, Bridget weeps about losing her wine and her boat. Yet despite their differences, the friendship feels real. The scenes with Bridget and Kara are delightful and interesting. Their dialogue crackles and the hurt inflicted made me wince. There was a real sense of the forces that bring them together as friends, and shows how some disparities cannot be bridged by affection.

The novel posits Bridget and Kara as opposing figures: as well as contrasting wealth and poverty, the novel looks at love when it’s abundant and when it’s insufficient. Although she hasn’t much money in her bank account, Kara has a lot of love to give. She’s a natural caregiver, and we see from her older daughter Alisha that she can raise a good child. Kara has time and energy for everyone – ‘Kara waved her in and gave her a hug – she looked like she needed it’ – but she has no time or money to look after herself. Her body shakes with a nasty cough that worsens as the novel progresses. Kara has a respectful and warm relationship with her own mother, Robyn, whereas Bridget argues with her mother. Bridget hasn’t much love for anyone, not even her own son. Even though there was a slight reference to why Jayden might call his mother ‘Kara’, it didn’t seem in character. It seemed more like something Rafe might have done. Rafe is a difficult child, often misbehaving, spoilt and rude, and Kerr makes clear we are to blame his parents, who are too consumed with their own selfish desires to parent him. Bad parenting can happen in any household – but not all households are headed by a man like Martin. Rafe hasn’t stood a chance.

Victory Park looks at the idea of luck, and its antithesis: moving up in the world via ‘hard work’. Bridget and Martin are both attractive – Martin is described ‘like a marble statue – cheekbones, delicate curls, eyelashes that caught the last of the light’, and how you look is all down to chance. These are people for whom luck plays a major role in their success. Even Bridget’s failure – a school that had to close down – doesn’t impact her in any meaningful way, and she moves on without much damage to her life. Another character discusses their theory about how the ‘luckiest people’, those with the ability to make the most of opportunities, end up with a type of brain damage, that ‘you could see actual changes in their brain on a scan.’ Is this why Martin and Bridget are so awful? Or is it that they were awful before, and with money and success they were able to hurt so many more people?

Whereas Kara, the novel implies, would be kind and caring no matter her financial position. She helps her neighbours. She volunteers at school. She pays for her mother’s vet bills, even when she can’t afford to. Would money and success and ‘luck’ change Kara? Possibly. But we might never know. Kara doesn’t yearn for more, she only yearns for peace, for love, for security, for family. Bridget tries to talk her into wanting more than just a low-paid job that’s essentially a babysitter – ‘You’ve talked yourself into thinking it’s okay because you have to do it. But you don’t really have to. Just go learn something new,’ exposing her privilege her, assuming people can learn something new simply by wanting to, and not realising that time and money play an enormous part in whether someone can change direction.

The novel is meticulously plotted and executed, and Kerr’s writing is simple and effective, tending toward clean and dry rather than poetic. Occasionally it felt that the beauty of language was explicitly denied instead of welcomed, although there were moments when the writing revelled in its ability to create magic. One passage that kept the dry storytelling voice and also sunk a little deeper into the lyrical: ‘The last of the grey light lingered in the purple silk of the kite, which was buoyed by the same updraft as the gulls. It dawdled and gently descended, inhaled and filled, swooped up in a great whoosh before pivoting and returning. The sky above was still blue but completely drained of brightness.’

I saw Kara as that kite, a delicate fragment buffeted by people and circumstance, but finally able to find enough air to inhale fully and soar.

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Book Reviews The Swimmers - Chloe Lane Uncategorized

Book Review: The Swimmers by Chloe Lane

Victoria University Press, RRP NZ$30.00, Fiction

Content warning: spoilers

Chloe Lane’s debut novel, The Swimmers, follows Erin Moore over the course of one Queen’s Birthday long weekend. The annual Moore family lunch, usually held at her mother’s house in Wellington, is up at the family farm this year – because her mother lives there now. The five days in the novel are a heady, crushing family drama full of mistakes, small glories, loss and love.

The novel begins with Aunty Wynn driving Erin from Auckland, where she now lives and works as an intern at an art gallery, to the family homestead near the Kaipara Harbour. Erin’s life is a classic mid-twenties mess: a fledgling career, a messy love affair, a relationship with her mother that is fracturing further every day. Her mother, Helen, was diagnosed with motor neurone disease a year earlier, and now her condition has deteriorated significantly. So much so, that she’s moved up north again, to live with her sister and brother. Erin is perplexed at the decision. But as the next five days play out, Erin realises she knows only the woman as her mother, and that she knows nothing about her mother as a sister, as a daughter, as a woman. This is a dynamic that most of us come to comprehend as we grow older: no matter how close we are to someone, they remain unknowable and mysterious even to the end.

The family dysfunction and odd interplay is familiar to most people – aren’t all families dysfunctional in some way? The characterisation is lightly drawn yet compelling, the scenes in which Uncle Cliff and Aunty Wynn have their toast – cosy and alienating at the same time. Erin feels like a loner, but she discovers over this weekend that she’s never alone, that she has a family, whether she likes them or not, that she’s one of the ‘necessary cogs in the one family machine’.

The crisis at the heart of The Swimmers is Helen’s decision to end her life. Wynn tells Erin the plan on their drive north, and the reverberations from the shock of this send Erin into meltdown. She finds herself enlisted to carry out the small details, and the large ones too, that will help her mother’s ‘Final Frolic’ go to plan. Erin is devastated and yet composed. Despite her grieving journey for her mother that began with the first signs of MND, Erin is able to help pull together the necessary ingredients – Nembutal and all.

The first-person narration is hypnotic and engaging. Erin describes the world and herself with punchy language: ‘…whenever I see photos of myself from this time, I think of the expression ‘bright-eyed and bushy-tailed’ and how much I looked like the opposite…More like I’d been through the wash too many times. Faded out. Less there.’ The prose continues like this, fuss-free and unassuming, which makes the violence of the emotional punch all the more powerful. It’s not a long book, but it pulls you into the lives of Erin, Helen, and Wynn with such force that you cannot escape The Swimmers draft. The ‘Tuesday’ section, the day Helen has chosen to seal her fate, feels much longer than it is. The events of that Tuesday featured several uncanny moments that resembled episodes from my own life, so that I read it sobbing, my whole body upset and reeling. Thinking about it now, my head tightens and I feel overwhelmed with sadness. One simple sentence, ‘We bore it out together’, tightened the moment perfectly with five ordinary words. Lane has captured such depth and heartache, sorrow and truth – I cannot remember the last time I was so moved by fiction.

The main character, Erin, is a failure and a success. These two ideas are what the novel grapples with, in many aspects of life – sport, artistic endeavours, relationships. Erin is worried about making the wrong decision, repeating the idea that ‘I didn’t trust myself to come out on top. And that’s what I was afraid of most: losing more than I already had.’ She’s worked hard all her life – trained hard for her swimming races, practicing her art, studying art history, curating her first show, trying to find love – and yet she’s failing at it all. Working hard doesn’t guarantee success. Success doesn’t make someone, or something, good. Wynn, Helen, Erin and her cousin Bethany are all struggling with fear and confidence, ambition and reward. They feel brave, and they make mistakes. They take a chance, they lose. The women – and this is a book populated and interested in women – work stubbornly toward their goals. Some are mundane goals like following the black line up and down the pool, others are considerably more frightening.

The Moore women in The Swimmers are a case study in how we behave under pressure. How we flail around in life when we don’t know how to live. The Swimmers explores beauty and ugliness, in art and in life; it’s a close study of the perfect imperfection of life. The necessary grotesque; the fleeting moments of happiness.

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Book Reviews Nothing to See - Pip Adam

Book Review: Nothing To See by Pip Adam

To talk about Nothing To See without spoiling the fun is a challenge. Pip Adam’s new novel about sobriety, friendship, and technology follows up from her 2018 Acorn Prize for Fiction winner The New Animals. In this new novel, we follow Peggy and Greta, and for a while Margaret, from 1994 to 2006 to 2018, steeping ourselves in their lives. A plot that sounds almost banal when summarised results in a book impossible to put down.

The incredible cover drew me in to start with: a split face inverted, with bright yellow chunky font running just below their eyes. The joy continues inside the book, too. The novel is loosely divided into thirds, and it draws you in with hypnotic sentences and unsteady narrative. In the first part of the book, we meet Peggy and Greta and follow them from AA meeting to their flat to AA meeting. They make carrot sandwiches. They discover hummus at the dairy. A volunteer job at the Salvation Army shop offers some distraction from their painful desire to drink again and their equally powerful desire never to drink again. They sort clothes for the shop and they eat their lunch in the carpark and discuss their flatmates Heidi and Dell. At home, the phone rings, and no one is there.

I felt like I was holding my breath while I read. The writing’s like a frozen lake: with each step, with each phrase, I wasn’t sure the ice would hold my weight. A sentence declares one idea, and the next sentence contradicts it, leaving the reader to work hard to stay on the surface. It’s funny too. The humour has teeth, and it doesn’t let go.

My favourite scene from this section is a picnic at a local park. From the overladen picnic table to the dramatic volleyball game, it’s cringe after cringe after cringe until your brain cramps from the exertion.

Alcohol abuse and sobriety play an enormous part in this novel, and while the pull of the bottle withers somewhat for the main characters, it never dies away. Early sobriety’s a colossal change in lifestyle. The addict is forced to make a break in their life, a before and an after. They must reject their former self to make space for the new. This division is essential to the person learning to live sober, and it holds tightly to the stopwatch that marks the minutes since they left behind that other self. A few pages in, and, despite Peggy and Greta’s inability to do very much for themselves, they are obsessively keeping sight of the passing time since they stopped drinking, ‘…it was ten months and three weeks and two days.’ But is this division a satisfactory explanation for all the changes in their life? Not at all. The novel twists and turns away from a neat solution.

The second part of the novel sees Peggy and Greta move to another island, another city, one with hills and trains. The writing tightens a bit, the vocabulary extends, and Peggy and Greta move into their thirties. There’s a calm to them, and to the writing, that wasn’t present before, and it’s interesting to consider if perhaps this magnifies the evolving cohesion of Peggy and Greta, a smoothing out of rough edges.

And then comes page 237. Reader, I gasped. There’s no way to tell you what happened without spoiling the shock. The ice broke, just when I thought that it had hardened and solidified to be safe enough to run across.

This novel notices, unpicks, and analyses the limitations and discrimination inherent in bureaucracy and in the systems that govern us. We see a world resistant to change in order to help these women find work, find shelter, and feed themselves. It’s tempting to draw parallels between this and the systemic discrimination of people based on ethnicity and religion, disabilities, and health issues, in particular mental health.

The propellent in the story seemed to be the relationship between Peggy and Greta and Heidi and Dell, their former flatmates and fellow recovering alcoholics. The dynamics of the women kept the suspense factor high, and the novel casts friendship through a prism, watching the deterioration and evolution of connection through many years and in constantly changing environments.

This book melts the boundaries between language and computer code, human behaviour and mysterious text messages on a Tamagotchi phone. It investigates loss and heartbreak and growing up and saying goodbye. And this doesn’t even touch the edges of where this novel goes. It moves from AA meetings to an experiment with the simulation hypothesis of explaining our world. Unafraid to shine a bright light into dark corners, Adam’s novel Nothing To See is compelling literary fiction with a startling yellow spine – you won’t forget it in a hurry.