NZ journo's novel journey

Author and journalist Bianca Zander. Photo / Supplied
Author and journalist Bianca Zander. Photo / Supplied

At a time when publishers are feeling understandably averse to risk, it's good to see fresh talent still emerging. Auckland journalist Bianca Zander's first novel, The Girl Below (Penguin, $30), is by no means flawless but it demonstrates admirable depth, skill and inventiveness, marking her as one of the more interesting new Kiwi writers I've come across in recent years.

If I had to stick a label on this book then it would read "supernatural coming-of-age drama". Its key character, Suki Piper, is an emotional mess.

Adrift in the world, grieving for the mother she lost to cancer as a teenager and haunted by a dark incident in her childhood, Suki is desperately trying to find a place where she belongs.

The story opens with her return to London's Notting Hill after 10 years in New Zealand.

"It was only May but the streets flared golden like they do in high summer, and all around me the neighbourhood sighed with so much privilege that I felt shut out - a stranger on the block where my childhood took place," Suki tells us.

Her re-entry into London life is grim.

She is short on cash, an unwelcome guest in a friend's flat and incapable of sorting herself out.

When she discovers an old neighbour, Peggy Wright, still living in the building where she grew up, Suki latches on to her and her daughter, Pippa. Reconnecting with the past brings back Suki's childhood nightmares. In Peggy's flat she finds the creepy statue of a young girl that left her rigid with fear as a 5-year-old.

But it's the garden, and an old air-raid shelter, where most of her terrors are centred. For it was there, after a memorably drunken party, she and her parents became briefly trapped underground, and the trauma of the incident has never faded.

Suki finds herself revisiting the garden and the party, both in memory and in supernatural sequences.

Magical realism is a tricky genre and some readers may find it frustrating that Zander never makes it clear if this is a haunting or just dreaming.

But I think she gets the balance right and it's no bad thing to leave it up to the reader to decide whether Suki is psychologically disturbed or if there really is something spooky happening.

Dark, gothic and sinister seem to be the tones of choice for so many New Zealand writers. The Girl Below, though it's all of those things, is also sparky enough to be an entertaining read.

To me it feels like a novel that has been a long time in the writing. There is a lot going on with the story, which moves between three time periods and countries, and is crowded with themes and ideas.

For the most part, Zander keeps a firm hand on things: the structure works, the prose sings, and the people hold your interest, even if Suki is passive for a lead character.

There were some points when it did seem overworked and the ending was surprisingly frail but, all in all, this is a strong debut and Zander's a writer with a promising future.

- Herald on Sunday

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