Soon by Charlotte Grimshaw
The people of Charlotte Grimshaw's 2010 novel The Night Book are a couple of years older. And a couple of years wiser or more disillusioned.
David Hallwright is now Prime Minister. He's confident, flawed, mercurial, still inarticulate and still popular because of it, a metaphor for self-made success, and an individual whom others only fleetingly touch. He will indeed remind you of current laminated leaders, though Grimshaw is too astute to make this a simple equation.
Other characters have died or dwindled; prospered or plundered. The back-stories are deftly picked up; a big cast is assembled and manoeuvred with impressive skill.
Hallwright and his concentric circles of friends or advisers gather for a few summer days at "the exclusive beach resort" of Rotokauri, on a very Hibiscus-like Coast. Relationships strain. Truths emerge. Violence flickers and flares. Beautiful people get themselves into ugly situations.
It's a story of several levels, centred around the uneasy interface of public and private lives, the erosion of one by the other, and the plottings to reconcile imperfection with image.
Gynaecologist Simon Lampton is once more the narrative's fulcrum, haunted by a past misjudgment that leads here to a grotesque accident. He's warped into new shapes by what he does and then tries to deny. Events sweep him towards a profound moral abdication, and a last-page teaser for Our Next Episode.
Grimshaw again vividly evokes the glossy, greedy Auckland that we outer breeds love to loathe. She's fascinated and appalled by its excesses: the Asian and Polynesian house staff, tennis coaches, personal trainers, foreshores jammed with "monstrosities of glass and steel", the painfully bright light with actual or symbolic storm clouds building on the horizon.
"It's the rich what gets the pleasure" (and the attendant perils) in this novel. The alien southern suburbs which formed such a powerful part of The Night Book appear here only as distant drumbeats.
Simon's brittle wife Karen yearns to be accepted by the Hallwrights. Simon yearns to be accepted by Roza of the unsettling eyes. His bolshie brother, Ford, yearns to stand the "venal, inane, shallow" lot of them in front of a revolutionary firing squad. Through long lunches and somnolent afternoons, tensions build.
Politics hover at the edge of the book, though we hear that Hallwright's National Government doesn't believe in climate change, and we find it's not averse to a little unethical pressure on the law to protect reputations.
The unsettling juxtaposition of urbanity and blood-letting that characterises Grimshaw's other fiction keeps things edgy and jumpy here. Language and its implications are another motif: the PM doesn't like novels, so we mark him down a couple of notches; the serial fantasy Roza tells to precocious young Johnny takes the text into different dimensions.
Grimshaw's writing never stands still. The narrative belts along, pausing just long enough for characters to tie themselves into another bunch of knots. She has a wickedly accurate ear for the banalities of dialogue and the jargon of power plays. She's excellent at rendering an entire history or relationship through one scene: a choice of photos redefines loyalties; grass growing in footsteps memorialises a marriage; hitching up shorts recalls a whole childhood.
There's a superfluity of admittedly startling Dark Secrets and admittedly clever set-piece conversations about blended families and the PM's need for a bigger bum. But the force, the clarity, the relentless peeling away of pretensions, and the utter authenticity of geographical/social/moral settings keep it engrossing and convincing. Definitely a novel that puts your coffee in danger of cooling while you read. Since it's set in Decile 10 Auckland, make that "your latte".
David Hill is a Taranaki writer.