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Author QandA Victory Park - Rachel Kerr

QandA with Rachel Kerr

READ CLOSE: Your debut novel, Victory Park, began as your MA thesis at the IIML at Victoria University. Tell us about how that year impacted your writing and this novel in particular?

RACHEL KERR: Well I was incredibly lucky to have Emily Perkins as my supervisor. From the start, she emphasized the importance of depth and imagination over surface things like everything flowing nicely, which can be fixed later. There were practical suggestions such as that it’s a good idea to keep writing forwards in a first draft rather than to be tempted to keep going back and fixing things – which meant I actually got somewhere. We did a lot of work at sentence level, looking at ways of organising words and phrases. The class extensively discussed different approaches taken by authors we loved, both at a philosophical level, and at a practical craft level. It was also very useful if quite painful at times to have my work read and discussed by the group as it helped me get a clear picture of my strengths and weaknesses. One of the challenges I had was that in writing about children, it’s easy for the prose to pick up a whiff of childishness, and I had to work hard against that.

Kara, a bereaved mother of two, forges an unlikely friendship with Bridget, her new neighbour and wife of a disgraced fund investor – and it’s this relationship, and not a love story, that drives the novel. Are you interested in the potential for more novels to interrogate female friendship like you have done here?

I’m certainly interested in novels by other women which do this – I’m not sure my own next book will though. Sarah Moss’ Ghost Wall springs to mind as a stunning recentish example. Pip Adam’s Nothing to See. Some of the stories in the epic Sport 47. Female friendships form such a bulwark for women in tough times but can go horribly wrong.

We’d love to hear about the research you did for this novel – meeting people, walking around Wellington, understanding the dynamics of life for many different people. Please tell us about it.

Sure. At the start I read a lot about Ponzi schemes, including about Bernie Madoff, but also various court cases. Almost none of that ended up in the book, and I’d be more focussed about it next time, or maybe hold off on doing so much research until I had a clearer idea how I was going to approach the book. The most useful research I did was spending quite a lot of time in the suburb where the book is set, getting a close up idea of the look and feel. Very broadly, I think much of the ‘research’ for a book is the way you live your life, which can’t help but filter into the work.

Do you have writers, books, art, music or film that you consider influential or inspirational for your writing? 

A couple of writers who I find directly inspirational are Penelope Fitzgerald and Doris Lessing. Not exactly obscure choices but it’s hard to go past them! Both of them have a surface simplicity and accessibility, while doing some fine moral calibration underneath. Both balance the full range of experience in terms of highs and lows, with authenticity and some joy and humour.

In terms of films, I particularly enjoy a well-made documentary. My favourite last year was The Silence of Others by Almudena Carrucedo and Robert Bahar.

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

Emily Perkins recently compared my work to that of Barbara Trapido, so I’ll run with that! In terms of local writers, I felt a real connection with Kirsten McDougall’s first book, The Invisible Rider, in its gentle depiction of characters struggling with the normal difficulties of being decent.

If Victory Park were to be made in a film, or TV show, who would like to be cast?

I’d love to see Rachael Brown, the woman on the cover of the book, given a screen test. Siobhan Marshall (Pascalle from Outrageous Fortune) for Bridget.

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

I’m reading Moetū, by Witi Ihimaera, at one page a day. It has each page in te reo, then English, so I’m trying to understand the reo first.

Half read or TBR includes:

-Clarice Lispector, Collected Stories

-David Coventry, The Invisible Mile

-Sarah Moss, Summerwater

-Kate Camp, How to be Happy though Human

-Chloe Lane, The Swimmers

-Xanthe White, The Good Dirt.

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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.