The Widow's Daughter by Nicholas Edlin
It's Auckland in World War II. The city is full of "big kids with free time and ... no responsibilities". Yes, Americans and their hormones. One of the former, accompanied by a lot of the latter, becomes besotted with a local lass. The relationship is passionate, then hectic, then tragic. There's a civilian death and a military desertion. There's a lot more as well, in this first novel by a young Aucklander living in Britain.
It starts 20 years after the main events, as Peter Sokel, once an orthopaedic surgeon attached to the US Marines, but now an artist, is back Stateside, living with his first older woman, painting (he "cuts himself ... to bleed his past"), and reading the memoirs of a fellow soldier.
His memories take us back to New Zealand, specifically to Auckland's Victoria Park, turned by war into a military hospital.Sokel is kept busy with soldiers maimed in the Pacific, or injured less heroically in the bars and brothels of Ponsonby Rd, a place marked by its "malevolent feeling of too-many-drinking-hours".
But mainly he's kept busy by Emily. She's "a beautiful abstraction ... peculiar and unknowable", though "her porcelain face flushes a lovely pink".
Her family is dysfunctional, with an arrogant mother, a sinister servant, a bizarre brother. One of them is dispatched with a steak knife. A conspiracy looms. Oswald Mosley gets a look in. Sokel is tempted and falls.
It's a narrative full of mysteries. Almost everyone has a couple of murky secrets. There are significant references to significant events that happened in Frisco, or with Beth, or to a best buddy, or "on the other side of the world, almost three decades ago". There's a complicated route to final reconciliation, accompanied by homilies and short chapters.
Characters live colourful lives, rendered in matching prose. You're quite likely to be swept along by the impetus and enigmas of the plot. You're also quite likely to find your eyebrows elevating rather often.
Edlin has attempted a lot and achieved a lot. This is a novel with vivid character/caricature sketches, muscly dialogue, energetic movement. Let's hope he includes all these strengths in his second novel - and leaves out the less successful elements while he's at it.By David Hill