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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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Author QandA She's a Killer - Kirsten McDougall

Q&A with Kirsten McDougall

READ CLOSE: She’s a Killer tackles themes and ideas most of us are aware of, but mostly spend time avoiding: climate crisis, inequality, who deserves to survive catastrophe. Alice’s story forces us to face them head on – did you aim to write a novel that delves into our worst fears?

KIRSTEN MCDOUGALL: Absolutely. I was speaking with climate change scientist Dave Lowe yesterday. His memoir, The Alarmist, came out this year – documenting the past fifty years he’s spent measuring the rise in the atmosphere’s carbon. He wrote that book to tell the story to a wider public, to reach beyond scientists. He wrote it partly out of anger. He’s known the science intimately for decades, we all know the science now, but nothing is happening fast enough to make real change. I laughed and said, that as writers we have rage in common as a motivating factor. I began writing She’s a Killer when Donald Trump was still President. While writing it I continued to read stories of homelessness and poverty in our own country, wildfires in many countries around the world. Writing She’s a Killer was my reaction to all of this.

Although the premise is grim, She’s a Killer is hilarious. We don’t see a lot of comedy in literary fiction – tell us about the use of humour in this novel and how you balanced serious and funny to create your gripping novel.

Well, we all sometimes turn the page rather than read yet another report on how dire the climate crisis is. I knew that if I was going to write about climate and economic disparity, and how we often take a head in the sand approach to all the hard things in our lives then I needed to offer the reader something else. Two of my favourite comedians are Stewart Lee and Reggie Watts. Both use humour to slyly dig a knife under the ribs of the comfortable audience. I admire that kind of art immensely. I’m digging in a knife through She’s a Killer, but I’m also trying to entertain you. I think entertainment and serious ideas can coexist in literature. If we’re to survive the coming years, we’ll need our sense of humour.

Alice has an imaginary friend in the novel, the quietly meticulous Simp. Why did you use this literary device in the novel to reveal Alice’s character? Did you have an imaginary friend growing up (or do you still have one??)

Simp is the part of Alice that stops her from becoming a full-blown sociopath. She is her last scrap of empathy and rational behaviour, but because Alice is so divorced from her feelings, empathy is a concept for her, in the shape of an imaginary friend. I did have an imaginary friend as a child. Her name was Simp. The Simp in the book is fictional. My Simp was real.

What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

Elizabeth Knox: ‘be bloody-minded’. This is the best advice because it’s practical and has nothing to do with vague ideas like inspiration. It reminds you that you’ve got to dig your heels in, do the very best work you can do, and then stand by that work.

I like to think of novels sitting in conversation with each other. Could you tell us two or three other books you would like She’s a Killerto be in conversation with, books that would augment and inform a reader’s appreciation of your novel?

Other people might be better placed to answer this question. As I’ve gotten older my influences have become a big soup in my head. Two writers I’ve admired for years for their humour and insight are Grace Paley and Alice Munro, but my writing is nothing like their writing.

What are you reading now? What is on your TBR pile?

On top are: a reread of The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton; The Pink Jumpsuit by Emma Neale; a few issues of Irish literary magazine The Moth; Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings by Neil Price.

What music did you listen to while writing or that inspired the story?

Early Britney. Kendrick Lamar’s Damn. A lot of LCD Soundsystem. Underworld’s ‘Bruce Lee’, ‘Tesla’ Omar Souleyman Version. Beats, anger, humour, pop.

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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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Author QandA Isobar Precinct - Angelique Kasmara

Q&A with Angelique Kasmara

READ CLOSE: Isobar Precinct is set in a very gritty, dark but sexy Auckland. How does the city inform the story you’re telling, and were you ever tempted to set the book in another place?

KASMARA: Ha! Lestari and her friends are people who work too hard, for whom a ‘night out’ is grabbing a samosa while waiting for their bus or stumbling to the nearest food court, and the city they see reflects this utility of movement, so I’m not sure what I did to make it appear “gritty, dark but sexy”, but I’ll take it. Nice!

I never once considered setting the book in a different place: story and location were a package deal from the start. With all the speculative elements going on, I needed to feel grounded inside a city I knew, and particularly, within Karangahape Road. In my twenties, I lived on and off in streets just off K Road and for a while I worked as a barista in a place called The Live Poet’s Cafe which was attached to the Dead Poet’s Bookshop, though they were run by different people. The owner of the cafe, my boss, used to do things like decide that everyone who came in would have macchiatos, no matter what they actually ordered. A friend of mine once asked for a sticky date pudding and was given baklava instead because he thought the baklava looked particularly fancy-pants that day. And he would fawn over some people and be incredibly rude to others, for no reason other than that he was a terrible snob. He used to ignore my then-boyfriend because ‘he looks like a nerd’. I always thought that the boss would make a good character in a novel, and he was in Isobar Precinct fleetingly, but nup, he was an early casualty of a vigorous cull. However the cafe does make a brief appearance – renamed Miss Marigold, at the bottom of the stairs of the Golden Ratio Tattoo Shop. Its barista, Travis, is definitely not based on me.

Lestari’s story isn’t straightforward – the novel twists and turns, delving into time travel and medical trials. Were you drawn to the story by the character of Lestari – a dry, tough yet fragile on the inside tattoo artist – or was it the story idea of the “Q-Tips” that first came to you?

The story came first, however Lestari’s particular arc created what would be the eventual plotline. Initially, two lawyers were the main characters, with Lestari called in as a witness to a trial. 20,000 words later and I could see it going down the route of courtroom drama with the speculative elements and alt-characters dismissed as delusional, but also, I knew I needed someone who was at the centre of things, not on the outside as a jaded observer. So I fired my lawyers. When Lestari became the main character, I could finally see a way forward. I’ve mentioned the lawyers a few times to people who’ve asked me what the book is about, because I think the meta aspect of their disappearing timeline is the funniest thing in it (or rather, not in it). Unfortunately I’m the only one who finds this hilarious.

Tattoos play an important role in your novel, both from a plot point of view and one heavily laden with symbolism. Tell us about your research into tattooing and the role you hoped it would play in your book?

I read a lot on the subject, watched a pile of videos and then when I was close to my final draft, I approached Pip Hartley at Karanga Ink, and Mokonuiarangi Smith at Uhi Tapu to check for inaccuracies. I didn’t want to overload them as they’re both really busy people, so I picked out key sections which needed a close eye – if I skipped anything important, I’d like it to be known that they’re not responsible. I really admire how tattoo artists juggle so many different hats – artistic, design, technical, health, practical, business and people skills, and hopefully this comes through.

Lestari isn’t much of a talker and she gets easily annoyed with the inside of her own head, and so the symbolism came through in a very organic way, via my attempts to sit with her and see things from her point of view. She’s all about getting on with the job, and so the way tattoos reflect what’s going on with the physical, emotional and psychic world, ended up lighting up the page in a way that my often brusque protagonist wasn’t about to.

Lestari’s own tattoos also symbolise how she’s only loosely connected to her mother’s cultural heritage, especially how her antaboga plays only a bit part, while her ouroboros is far more of a ‘character’. One of the culled lawyers was Chinese Indonesian (I’m also Chinese Indonesian), who had stronger ties to the Indonesian community. Lestari is Balinese-Javanese Indonesian on her mum’s side, Pakeha on her dad’s. It was important to me to create characters who reflect the diverse communities we have in Tamaki Makaurau.

What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

Finding a writing routine which works for me has helped the most but I’m not sure if this came from someone’s advice or from trial and error. I like to write surrounded by noise – I used to love writing in Brazil Cafe in Karangahape Road and was so sad when they shut. When plotting, I write in short but frequent bursts, one paragraph at a time, because I have a terrible attention span. I rewrite obsessively however and this is when my focus does kick in. For a long time I thought I would never be a ‘real’ writer because I had the notion that you had to like writing in quiet, artfully arranged rooms with a view, have the ability to remain laser focused for hours and cough up wondrous sentences which only need the lightest of polishes. Aside all that, I love this by George Saunders: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/mar/04/what-writers-really-do-when-they-write

I like to think of novels sitting in conversation with each other. Could you tell us two or three other books you would like Isobar Precinct to be in conversation with, books that would augment and inform a reader’s appreciation of your novel?

Okay but I feel kind of rude at the thought of my book elbowing in alongside the brilliant writers I’m about to mention. Kindred by the late African-American writer Octavia Butler was an early inspiration. The book is so clever but also really readable. It explores the dynamics and impacts of antebellum slavery through the eyes of a late 20th century African American woman who unwillingly time travels back to a pre-Civil War Maryland plantation. Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life (which became the film Arrival). Chiang’s writing has the effect of making me feel smarter for having read it but simultaneously making me feel more profoundly stupid. If I ever came face to face with him, I’d probably just go hide in the nearest bush because I’d be so intimidated. Neil Gaiman! Many of his books, but especially his Sandman series. Also a shout out to Captain Underpants, which my then five-year-old was reading at the time. There’s one in the series – I forget which – where the time travel entanglements get increasingly ridiculous in the funniest ways. It helped me lighten up.

What are you reading now? What is on your TBR pile? I’m reading Crazy Love by Rosetta Allan. It’s so intimate in a peeking into someone’s diary sort of way. I have a ridiculously big TBR pile; being a slow reader doesn’t help. Top of the list is Pip McKay’s The Telling Time. The Republic of False Truths by Alaa al-Aswany. Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro. Hibiscus Coast by Paula Morris. As soon as I heard we’re going to Level 3, I jumped online and ordered books by Jack Remiel Cottrell, Tayi Tibble and Chris Tse. Oh and The Leaning Man by Anne Harre. I’m also looking forward to the upcoming YA novel Spark Hunter by Sonya Wilson. A friend of mine just sent me a photo of Entangled Life by mycologist Merlin Sheldrake. He’s raving about it so it’s also going on the pile.

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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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Author QandA I Laugh Me Broken - Bridget van der Zijpp

Q&A with Bridget van der Zijpp

READ CLOSE: I Laugh me Broken is set in Berlin. Tell us about why you chose this city, and what modern Berlin offers to your story.

VAN DER ZIJPP: I had an idea for a novel about somebody who, as an adult, finds out they are at risk of a devastating genetic disease which completely upends their life. To write it, I decided to upend my own life and go off somewhere in the world. Berlin was calling as a destination so I contacted the Goethe Institut to explore possible artist residencies and they generously offered me a language scholarship.

While I didn’t manage to achieve fluency in those introductory language classes, I came to love the way Germans make up a long compound word to exactly describe something (my favourite – Backpfeifengesicht – a face that is asking to be slapped!). German verb and sentence construction is quite different to English and there is a word for mangled, too-literal translations between German (Deutsch) and English – ‘Denglish’. I played with that quite a lot in the novel, and the title itself, I Laugh Me Broken, is a Denglish translation of a common phrase.

When I first arrived in Berlin I think I felt overwhelmed by the potency of the history there, and as a writer you have to take some time to work out where you sit with it all. After the first few months I decided to stay on, as I hadn’t yet got to grips with the story I wanted to write. Joining some writer’s groups I realised that this disorientation about where to start was a common thing. We frequently talked about it – this period of malaise for the newly arrived, because there is so much to try and understand.

One thing I thought about quite a lot was how, as New Zealanders, we have a sense that whenever we have sent our troops off to wars it was always to help defend the side we consider to be in the moral right. In Germany there were obviously very complex concepts for their population to grapple with after Hitler’s regime, about complacency, guilt, punishment, culpability and atonement. For a long time after the second world war nobody would talk about it, but in later generations there has been a lot of self-reflection. And Berlin is also a city that suffered deeply when, almost overnight during the Cold War, a wall was put up between people on one side of the street and the other. Even now, 30 years after reunification, they are still grappling with issues of resentment and inequity between the two former economies. I think that makes for a really interesting society, and a stimulating place for a character in a book to wander around considering big, life-threatening dilemmas.

Your previous novels explore NZ’s fame and obsession, and in your new novel you’re exploring NZ’s youth and naivete on a global scale. Tell us about how the nature of New Zealanders informs your work.

I remember standing in a historical museum in Berlin watching a moving animation of all the border changes Germany has had over the centuries, and it brought home to me how European nations have been showing their strong faces (and sometimes their fists) at their borders for a long, long time. Any two countries that butt right up against each other, Germany and France say, are separated by cultural identities as different as Bratwurst and Saucisse de Montbéliard (and well, yes, the River Rhine). They know who they are and how they are different, and they don’t want to be encroached upon, thanks.

It struck me then how much we are formed by being an island nation. Remoteness is more our challenge, being a peaceful, long way away from anybody else. We tend to look inward, more than we measure ourselves against other countries. And we have this sense, that becomes palpable when you go to continental countries, that we have been allowed to make up our own rules (Covid response being the most recent example).

I think the general lack of threat means that we have a cultural tendency to be trusting. I sometimes got myself into weird situations in Europe by being a bit innocent and over-friendly, but I would always be thinking in my head, ‘At least this is good material.’

Ginny, your main character, is uncertain whether to take a test to determine her genetic inheritance. The bioethical implications of testing can have both positive and negative outcomes – what would you do?

This is exactly the space I imagined myself into for the novel, so having considered it deeply I know that, like Ginny, I wouldn’t be able to decide easily. When I’ve asked others they often say they’d want to know because they could plan their future. But I’ve also sought out the stories of people facing this particular genetic neurodegenerative disease, and the desire for certainty weighs heavily against how you might feel if you didn’t get the result you wanted (and couldn’t then go back to not having taken the test). Knowing that a horribly challenging physical and cognitive decline isdefinitely in your future is, for most, not better than living with uncertainty. What I do know for sure, though, is that if an effective treatment could be found to delay or lessen it, that would change everything.

What’s the best writing advice you have ever achieved?

When I first published my debut novel a person once said to me that you shouldn’t expect your first book will be the best you can achieve, you should aim for a future book to be your masterpiece. I liked that because it illuminated a writing career as a continuum, and that with each new book you are advancing in skill, refining your craft, working towards some kind of ultimate, elusive gold.

I like to think of novels sitting in conversation with each other. Could you tell us two or three other books you would like I Laugh Me Broken to be in conversation with, books that would augment and inform a reader’s appreciation of your novel?

Because the narrator in my novel is herself a writer (which some schools of thought say you should never try), I am going to gather in four (is that cheating?) novels that I admire, all written with female writers/artists as the main protagonists. Each of them uses a different stylistic framework to interrogate contemporary questions of identity.

Rachel Cusk’s Outline was the first of her trilogy to take the form of a series of digressive conversations, through which she seems to be exploring her own feelings about relationships and children, and also what story is. In Dept. of Speculation, Jenny Offill writes with very spare, pared back prose that has rage exploding up through the words, as she ruminates on the friction of marriage and stalled artistic ambitions. Olivia Laing employs an act of impersonation in Crudo, as her character inhabits the deceased Kathy Acker while also traversing over feelings about an impending marriage, and “growing up”. And Chris Kraus’s series of bonkers letters, in I Love Dick, gives us an eyeful of irrepressible obsession.

What I like about all of those novels is that they all feel so honest and intelligently probing that you are constantly wondering which parts must be true. And I like that those authors are all so clever that within their stylistic framework they don’t reveal exactly where the line is drawn between what we know of their actual lived experience and their acts of imagination (well, actually Chris Kraus gave some clues).

I’d love to get all of those writers in a room, and completely resist asking them where they get their inspiration from!

What are you reading right now? What is on your TBR pile?

Since coming back I’ve been enjoying the surge in local literature. I’ve just been laughing my way through Megan Dunn’s brilliant Things I Learned at Art School. (As I write that it occurs to me that Megan, along with Olivia Laing and Chris Kraus, all have an obsession with Kathy Acker at the centre of their books, so it reminds me that I should really get around to reading her original work.) Meanwhile, next on the pile, and I’m looking forward to it, is my friend Sue Orr’s Loop Tracks.

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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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Author QandA Crazy Love - Rosetta Allan

Q&A with Rosetta Allan

READ CLOSE: Crazy Love is your third novel – tell us about how you and your writing have changed or stayed the same in that time, and if/how this novel differs from your first.

ROSETTA ALLAN: My first novel, Purgatory, was published seven years ago. The second, The Unreliable People, was two years ago. Both were stories drawn from historical events and characters, and required vast amounts of research, which I love, and can easily get lost in. Crazy Love, by contrast, is the first time I have drawn from my own experience to create a story. For me, that’s a significant change. I think I have become a braver writer because of it. I remember Witi Ihimaera in a ’97 documentary talking about the Katherine Mansfield ‘Risk! Risk anything!’ quote as an inspiration to write his book Nights in the Garden of Spain — his first book with a gay theme. At the time, he said he wondered what he had done, but looking back two years later, he was proud of it. That’s the power of personal truth finding its way onto
the page.

The blurb mentions this is based on your own experiences. Is this auto-fiction, or simply memories reworked into fiction?

I enjoy good autofiction. I Love Dick, and The Bell Jar, are favourites. I admire the way these authors investigate themselves through their work. Crazy Love does not sit inside this category because I am analysing more than one character in the story. Yes, it is based on my own life, but I’m also exploring things external to myself in it, such as the endurance of love, the anguish of living with a partner with a mental disorder, the nature of New Zealand over the past 40 years, and the concept of home and belonging. Memories in this novel are not so much reworked, as written in a fictional style. Crazy Love was written as fiction, which was how I managed to expose so much personal detail. It’s like puppetry — the real ‘us’ safely tucked away inside the characters of Vicki and Billy. They enabled me to distance myself enough to write honestly and objectively.

At its heart, Crazy Love is romance, a great love story, that features letters to Muldoon. How do you see the political informing the personal in your work and in society?

Political decisions always have consequences that affect personal lives. That’s just the way it is. So many dramatic changes occurred locally and globally during the 40 years of the novel that directly affected our lives. Some, more indirectly, but experienced, nonetheless, such as the Dawn Raids. In ’84, this racism was a real threat to people we knew who lived in the shadows trying not to be subjected to the early morning police raids, to not be one of the families dragged out of their homes and deported. Then, in 2010, we cleared out the little house before renovating it to move in and found partitioning walls and fake floors under the house and in the ceiling. In neither place could you stand up. There was no power, no insulation against the cold, or heat in summer that beat down from the corrugated roof. Yet there was this labyrinth of tiny rooms, still scattered with personal items that had been left that way since a sudden decamp. Clearly, our earlier occupants were subject to these raids, and I felt so bad for them. So it was heartening to see in this week’s news that a governmental apology was offered in a historic Auckland Town Hall event for the racist Crown policies of the ‘70s and ‘80s. And that the apology was accepted.

What’s the best writing advice you have ever received?

Ricks Terstappen, a Hawkes Bay artist and dear friend, told me once just to keep doing it. ‘If you keep doing it long enough, things will happen.’ I have often thought about his advice over the years and realised it’s a form of putting one foot in front of another and not being anxious about the speed of progress. As long as you’re still doing the work, you are heading in the right direction.

I like to think of novels sitting in conversation with each other. Could you tell us two or three other books you would like Crazy Love to be in conversation with, books that would augment and inform a reader’s appreciation for your novel?

I adored Craig Silvey’s Honeybee. Even though the story is entirely different to Crazy Love, the book starts with a bridge and thoughts of suicide. I was delighted to see this similarity to the start of my novel when I came across the book recently. But more importantly, the two main characters save each other through the years. And that’s what loves does, no matter the form it takes. Billy and Vicki do that for each other and continue to do so. Tom Sainsbury’s New Zealanders is a compilation of favourite kiwi characters that make you laugh with recognition. I can’t help likening it to the hyphenated names I give my characters that describe them in a few words, at least how I perceive them, like dork-the-landlord’s ditched wife, or sick-but-sweet dollybird, or sledgehammer hoon. There is a definite thread of humour that runs through the novel. David Vann’s Halibut on the Moon is an exploration of a man held captive by mental illness. The torture of the mind is beautifully expressed, the searching, the desperation. Crazy Love offers more hope in the end, I think, but the journey of self-evaluation while trying to rationalise a situation that is not rational in any way — feels the same. There is a progression of ways that couples manage mental illness, from Bronte’s Jane Eyre to Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea (her answer to Bronte) to Crazy Love. In other words, there’s a long tradition of mental illness in fiction, but social attitudes have changed so that it works very differently as a theme. None of these earlier books are particularly similar to Crazy Love, so it is a conversation of very disparate approaches to a theme.

What are you reading right now? What is on your TBR pile?

I just finished Sarah Winman’s Still Life. It’s a book Carole from The Women’s Bookshop hugged as she recommended it to me, and I’m glad I took her advice because it now sits on my favourite’s shelf. Airini Beautrais Bug Week and Tayi Tibble’s Rangikura were both recent reads that inspired me. Incredible writers they both are. Finally, on the top of my TBR pile is Sue Orr’s Loop Tracks. I’ve been waiting for this, and I can’t wait to open the cover.

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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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Author QandA Loop Tracks - Sue Orr Uncategorized

Q&A with Sue Orr

READ CLOSE: Loop Tracks is set over different time periods – and the closest to present day takes place in 2020, during the level 4 and level 3 lockdowns. There’s been a lot of writers discussing how to manage the pandemic in their fiction, can you tell us about your decision to include this in your novel and why?

SUE ORR: I really felt as though I had no choice about including the lockdowns in Loop Tracks. I was already committed to a real-time narrative for the final half of the book – I’d already decided to continue telling Charlie and Tommy’s stories against the real backdrop of last year’s abortion law reform and the General Election. That was alway the plan – to graft their stories, their journeys, on to whatever played out in New Zealand politically over that period. Of course, Covid and lockdowns weren’t on the horizon when I made those decisions. But when they came along, I simply stuck with my original plan of grafting fiction on to real life. As it turns out, Covid and the extreme lockdown landscape were a gift to me – it was exciting and energising to let real events inform and influence the course of the story. Bubbles were especially useful – who would my characters choose to be with? Who would break the rules? I loved being surprised by their behaviour during lockdown and – as for many real people – there were some seismic shifts in their personalities and their fates over that stressful period. I do understand that there may be some pushback from readers about Covid fiction. But I’ve thought a lot about the fact that when we entered lockdown last year, we all had our own personal, ongoing dramas happening. And they didn’t simply evaporate on day one of lockdown – we had to keep dealing with whatever was going on in our lives. That transition really interested me in terms of my characters’ stories. I hope the treatment of the novel’s ongoing fictional dramas assuages any reader reluctance about reading the Covid parts of Loop Tracks.

Charlie spends a lot of time reflecting on her past in Loop Tracks. Combined with the title, the book made me think about how the past, the present and the future are all interconnected, and if you change one, you change them all, and that all decisions predicate the next outcome. Do you believe in fate, or are our lives predetermined?

I think I believe in a kind of a fate/free will hybrid. What would that be called… willfate? I believe very strongly in being brave, taking opportunities when they come along. The downside of not doing so might be that a door closes on you forever. You’ll always wonder ‘what if.’ I give my kids this advice constantly and often it terrifies them, but so far it’s worked out okay. Of course, you think things through before you make these brave moves and this includes calculating the worse possible outcomes, as well as the best – not only for yourself, but for others affected by your brave decisions. That’s something Charlie didn’t do when she made her decision on the plane at Auckland Airport. She was too young to be capable of the required calculations. I think fate is somehow connected to bravery. Ultimately, Charlie is called upon to be brave – it takes her forty years to find that bravery. Brave people who make good decisions are rewarded with new opportunities. At least, that’s my impression. For Charlie, it’s the opportunity to bump the looping nature of her life off course and find personal happiness.

What is the best piece of writing advice you have ever received?

I’ve received lots! The first piece of advice I ever received was from William Brandt, my first creative writing teacher. ‘Chase your character up a tree, then throw stones at him. Or her.’ (William says he got that from someone else, but I’m happy to credit him with it.) I’ve done so much of this stone-throwing over the years, I could get a bit part in The Lottery. It has served me well. The advice that felt most relevant in completing Loop Tracks came from my writing group and it was pretty straightforward. Don’t give up. Keep pushing forwards. And that’s the advice I give my own writing students. Just. Keep. Writing. Oh – and also – never totally delete anything. I mean, you might take sections out of a work-in-progress, but keep them in a Spare Parts folder. Because when you’re embedded in a writing project, in a narrative, everything you write, you write for a reason. The reason might not be evident or clear in the moment, but 150 pages on, you will suddenly realise why that scene demanded to be written, and where it now fits. I love that about writing – the subconscious construction of pixels that finally unpixelate.

Tell us about the influences on your writing career and this book?

My writing career has largely been influenced by the years I’ve spent involved with the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University of Wellington. I tried writing fiction for the first time in 2005, when I did the undergraduate short fiction course with William (Brandt). I knew I’d found my passion, even though I wasn’t good at it. I was very unsubtle. I blush even thinking about it. The Masters in Creative Writing followed in 2006 – that was the year I started to understand the power of fiction in its many forms, thanks to the brilliant Bill Manhire. And then, a decade later in 2016, I completed the institute’s PhD in creative writing. That’s when I really learned how little I knew about writing… and that awareness keeps growing. That’s why we write, I think – we keep finding out how little we know. It’s good to know there’s no horizon for learning. As for influences on Loop Tracks – I tend to try and not let myself be influenced by similar works, because I fear accidentally pinching someone else’s tricks and claiming them as my own. So I never read similar texts to the one I’m trying to write – not at the time of actual writing. However, sometimes I will try and capture a certain voice – an attitude, perhaps, for a character. For example, when I was trying to capture some of the older Charlie’s most irrational and unreasonable moments, I’d read Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. Just to get me in the right cantankerous mood.

I like to think of novels sitting in conversation with each other. Could you tell us two or three other books you would like Loop Tracks to be in conversation with, books that would augment and inform a reader’s appreciation for your novel?

Hmm that’s a tricky one! I’d like it to be read alongside any book that looks over its shoulder to an event in the past, but the characters have agency in the present. It’s that willfate thing. I shouldn’t mention this, because it’s just going to highlight how perfect her writing is compared to mine, but I love Marilynn Robinson’s connected novels – Gilead, Home, Lila and Jack. I love how the individual stories circle round each other, building a world bigger than the sum of its parts. And I love how fate and freewill constantly rage at each other in those novels.

What are you reading right now? What is on your TBR pile?

I’m reading in preparation for the Word festival in Christchurch at the end of August – I’m in a session with Clare Moleta and Brannavan Gnanalingam, chaired by the lovely Tracy Farr. I’ve just finished Clare’s Unsheltered and my heart will take some time to recover from that profound experience. I’m half way through Brannavan’s Sprigs, and I can tell already that I’m going to feel the same way about that book. It’s all about the characters, I reckon. Like William said. Grow strong characters, deliver adversity, then chuck some more shit their way. That’s where great books begin. The Japanese have a word for the pile of books on your bedside table that will never be read – tsundoku. My tsundoku is teetering, but I keep stress-testing the physics. Most recently Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This and the new Edward St Aubyn, Double Blind.