Kiran Dass speaks to Wellington-based writer Rachel Kerr about her debut novel
Victory Park is about the emotional and mental labour of being careful with money and the blindspots that people have when they don't need to worry about it. Largely set in a cluster of cramped council flats inspired by a real location in Wellington's diverse Newtown, it follows widowed solo mother and childcarer Kara, who develops a complex friendship with new tenant Bridget, a sleek and glossy privileged woman who has fallen from moneyed heights because of her fraudulent Ponzi-scheming husband.
Debut author Rachel Kerr says she wanted to set her book in a location where it would be believable that two people from very different walks of life might end up housed in close proximity.
"Newtown was an intuitive choice for that, because it does have that mix of people who work in government or at the hospital living near to refugees and people with mental health needs. There's a lot of life lived on the street in Newtown due to population density and also because it's pedestrian-friendly."
If you're stuck at home all day, that's a lot of hours to stare at and be agitated by the carpet you don't like, Kerr reckons. It can symbolise a lack of freedom, money and time. "I think our experience of architecture is greatly altered by our personal circumstances. Caregivers at home with small children sometimes find themselves frustrated with their homes more than they would otherwise - I know I did," she says.
"There's also the sense that our physical environment creates the mental or imaginative environments for our children, which will linger with them to adulthood."
It's a nuanced portrayal of what it is like to be skint and the differences between the haves and the have-nots. While Kara weighs up whether to pay for a bus ride or use that dosh towards buying a loaf of white bread, Bridget's biggest worry is whether the dairy will run out of soy milk. But Bridget's flush days are numbered as her estranged ratfink husband Martin is investigated by the Serious Fraud Office. And, as a bystander to his financial misdemeanours, Bridget is set to lose their spacious, airy light-filled home, the pool, the boat, the sculptures and paintings, the holiday home and the fine wine in the cellar.
It's a motley crew who reside at Victory Park. Kara, a kind and decent person who is generous with her time, becomes the glue of the community. Increased social density increases social visibility to form a kind of default community. Kerr says this kind of living situation leads to inhabitants feeling connected to the people in front of them and maybe some responsibility. She thinks architectural shared spaces physically put people together, which generates at least friendly acquaintances if not always friendships.
"I think community is a fragile thing. As with connections with family, community can be annoying and a drag as much as it is supportive and sometimes the things we appreciate are more in retrospect than at the time. A common feature of the residents of Victory Park is that they've all met with serious disappointments, which has given all of them some humility and they've learned to appreciate the small things."
I'm surprised when Kerr tells me she based the minor character Jo on herself. In one scene, the middle-class Jo tells Kara she feels bad that she lives in a much nicer house than Kara's. Kara hadn't even considered it until Jo dropped this microaggression.
"Yeah, Jo is kind of the 'me' stand-in in the book. It's possible there's some guilt tied up in that," Kerr admits.
Microaggressions slice through in other ways, too. Bridget lacks self-awareness and has no filter, blithely telling Kara that Victory Park is just a temporary stop off for her, a down-point she will bounce back from. But for Kara, Victory Park is her home. Bridget tells Kara she should be ambitious because people don't respect those who "just" look after other people's children.
"I think it's a challenge for anyone in a service job to feel like they're making a difference some days, because you can't see an end product," says Kerr. "That's especially true, I think, when those jobs are over-regulated, because people don't really feel like they're themselves at work.
"The job of looking after small children, in particular, is weirdly underpaid, I think partly because it's so important, that people will do it for no pay if necessary. It's the inverse of big banks being too big to be allowed to fail."
The initial idea for Victory Park came to Kerr after the infamous Bernie Madoff affair - the American fraudster behind one of the biggest Ponzi schemes in history. She says she couldn't help wondering about the family - how much they had known, if they benefitted and what happened to them afterwards. "And one of the depressing things is how common these schemes are. They just keep coming up. Perhaps because they affect a relatively small population they don't get as much attention as they might warrant," she says.
Kerr is on a short break before immersing herself into full-time Māori studies next year at Te Herenga Waka. She worked as a librarian for Te Kooti Whenua Māori and Judicial Libraries and is a graduate of Victoria University's IIML creative writing programme.
In the 1990s, Kerr went to film school where she appreciated the work of auteur Jim Jarmusch. This makes sense because Victory Park has an observational social realist stillness to match the quiet locked-off camera "no wave" aesthetic of early Jarmusch films Permanent Vacation and Stranger Than Paradise. She thinks there's a musicality to film that can transfer to writing - the rhythm, tone and momentum. Kerr is clearly a close observer of character and setting.
"It's an attribute that novelists share with scientists too, I think. I'm aware that in real life I'm as capable of being oblivious as anyone else, though. In fact, if you're paying close attention to one thing, by definition you're ignoring other things."