Book review: Rich well of talent

Sarah Laing has come up with a humorous and enjoyable novel
Sarah Laing has come up with a humorous and enjoyable novel

Some people are blessed with more than their fair share of talents, Sarah Laing among them. Not only did this New Zealand author design the striking cover for her new novel, The Fall Of Light (Vintage), but she produced the illustrations depicting her main character's dream life.

And while clearly she has a visual take on the world, Laing's prose isn't clogged with elaborate, descriptive passages. If anything, it falls towards being pared down and economical, with more richness in its people and themes than its settings.

The Fall of Light is the story of Rudy, an Auckland architect in his 40s who is standing on the rubble of his life trying to work out how to rebuild it. The wife he loves has left him because she can no longer cope with family coming second to his work. His children are growing up and his relationship with them is changing.

Plus Rudy is constantly frustrated by colleagues and clients who don't share his creative vision and are preventing him from producing a groundbreaking building that will bring international renown.

Rudy is a bit of a tosser, to be honest, the stereotypical architect who doesn't listen to his clients and is vain, snobbish and self-obsessed. But Laing endows him with the one characteristic that saves him: immense vulnerability.

The first chapter ends with his falling off his Vespa - a vintage 1964 model, naturally - and so the story becomes one of physical as well as emotional recovery.

The wounded Rudy retreats to the home he designed himself - Japanese influence, split levels, bifold doors and sea views - where at night he is haunted by dreams of fairytale cities and by day constructs models of the fantastical buildings he sees in them.

Aside from his kids, his main companionship comes from his artist friend Greg, his pregnant hippie neighbour Laura and the owners of his local store.

Can Rudy design a building that won't compromise his creativity but will actually get built? Can he win back his wife? Can he save his failing company? Can he deal with his unresolved feelings towards his adoptive parents?

At times, Laing's tone is gently sardonic - when she is referring to the art scene, for instance, or the inner workings of architectural firms, or her characters' obsessions - but for the main part family dynamics is the focus of the novel with our anti-hero Rudy at its centre.

I could have done without quite so much of the graphic novella fairytale component of The Fall Of Light. For me it didn't add enough to the story, although I do think that with the rise of e-reading, illustrations and design are becoming more important - books are going to need to be beautiful as well as readable.

Talented people often have high standards. They don't do anything sloppily.

Perhaps that's why Laing has tidied up all her loose ends a little too neatly at the finish. But that's a minor flaw and it doesn't stop this being a smart, often humorous and hugely enjoyable novel, part of a slew of terrific local fiction that's being published this winter.

- Herald on Sunday

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