Book Review: Risk

By John Gardner

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Risk by C.K. Stead
MacLehose $29.99

Book cover of Risk. Photo / Supplied
Book cover of Risk. Photo / Supplied

The indefatigable C.K. Stead (who turns 80 next Wednesday) covers a lot of ground in his latest novel, both geographically and thematically. Against the unfolding events of the Iraq war to topple Saddam Hussein and the world financial crisis, his New Zealand-born protagonist, Sam Nola, moves from home to London; spends time in Oxford, Paris and Uzes in the Languedoc; Stockholm, Zagreb and Rijeka in Croatia; as well as New York.

Each setting is provided with an atmospheric sketch giving Nola - and incidentally Stead - the opportunity to demonstrate the global perspective of the modern, educated New Zealander and the multinational world he or she inhabits. This is the world of international finance and politics, from which no one and nowhere is immune.

Nola is a lawyer who, in 2002, is hired by an international bank in London. He climbs the rungs of the corporate ladder almost unwittingly, to reach the level where he earns enormous sums but, unusually in that company, he has a growing unease about the foundations on which the financial structures are built.

His friends in Britain, meanwhile, are torn by divisions over another issue with shaky foundations - the justification for the war in Iraq and Blair and Bush's claims about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. The events of 9/11 still loom recently in the consciousness and a bank colleague, a trader who is also a poet, is injured in the July 7, 2005, London bombings.

The wider world is complex and Nola's private life is equally complicated. His New Zealand marriage founders and he is tracked down by a daughter he didn't know he had to a French lover on his earlier OE in London. He has an affair with a distant cousin he finds in Croatia, a passing encounter with a Russian prostitute in Sweden, a brief torrid fling with a colleague and a substantial relationship with the married sister of a buccaneering Jewish financial wizard.

Stead also throws in elements reflecting the particular nature of a New Zealander's experience and some excursions into poetry with the winning use of a key quotation from the notorious Australian fake writer, Ern Malley. So it is a rich list of ingredients, many enjoyable, but somehow the dish doesn't satisfy. The whole is rather less than the sum of its parts and it reads as if Stead had decanted the contents of several notebooks and tried to blend them.

The writing is, as ever, skilful with lucid, plain prose but there is a distance about it and Nola's emotional life rarely engaged this reader.

In the political passages written with the glorious benefit of hindsight, Stead wears his heart on his sleeve and deviates little from the Guardian reader's credo. The vile scenes of the execution of Saddam are accurately recorded with his looking "strong, unflinching, unbowed, dignified" but there's not much space for his tyranny.

There is enough to savour to make this book worth reading but it is not a convincing integration of the novelist's art.

John Gardner is an Auckland reviewer.

- NZ Herald

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