The great sucking void, John McCrystal

Soon
Charlotte Grimshaw
Vintage, $38.00,
ISBN 9781869799984

Ever since the 1999 publication of her first novel, Provocation, Charlotte Grimshaw’s writing has attracted a cloud of admirers and a liberal garnishing of awards. She is a novelist by instinct, if not by birth: even her two collections of short fiction, Opportunity (2007) and Singularity (2009) were novels in disguise, and at least one of her short stories has grown from the germ of an idea into nothing less than a pair of linked novels.

We first met Dr Simon Lampton, his adoptive daughter Elke and their edgy relationship in “The Night Book”, published in Singularity. Grimshaw clearly knew she was onto a good thing, and “The Night Book” was worked up into a novel of the same name, published in 2010. She wasn’t finished yet, and The Night Book’s sequel, Soon, is her latest. Her instincts have clearly told her she is in rich country, and they are not misleading.

For at the heart of Grimshaw’s writing, the fundamental preoccupation is with the mystery of human motivation – how we make sense of the actions of others, and how we tackle the far trickier task of making sense of our own. As she has mined the cast of characters and situations she created in The Night Book and Soon, she believes she has struck the motherlode.

It is summer as Soon opens. A storm passes to be replaced by flawlessly blue skies, the sibilance of cicadas, the scent of sunscreen, the glare of white sand, the sting of surf on sunburn, the tinkle of ice in tumblers poolside.

Simon Lampton, his wife Karen, his son Marcus and his adopted daughter Elke are on holiday at Rotokauri, a holiday township on a gorgeous east-coast beach not too far north of Auckland. Lampton’s natural daughter, Claire, has refused to join them because she objects to – and is objected to by – the people with whom the Lamptons are holidaying, namely the family of David Hallwright, the current Prime Minister of New Zealand. On a previous visit, Claire breached the unwritten law against talking politics, and since her politics weren’t compatible with those of the Hallwright government, neither she nor her views have been welcomed back.

Nevertheless, and despite the excommunication of his daughter, Simon Lampton has become close to the Prime Minister, just as his wife, Karen, has become close to David Hallwright’s wife, Roza. There are a number of factors here. There are, of course, several complicated things going on that have to do with Elke. While the Lamptons raised her as their own, Roza Hallwright turned out to be the girl’s birth mother, and Roza has cultivated a friendship with the Lamptons in order to be close to her long-lost daughter.

Simon has sublimated his attraction to his alluring, adoptive daughter into a deep passion for Roza, who doesn’t much resemble Elke but moves like her and has her mannerisms. And if they’re honest with themselves (and occasionally they are), the Lamptons are both thrilled at the opportunity they have acquired to rub shoulders with the rich and the powerful and to revel in the trappings of wealth and privilege and power. Just how much and deeply they care about “all this” will test their moral fibre when they are eventually forced to choose between the “friendship” and favour of the Hallwrights and other things they hold dear.

As the story progresses, it becomes clear that if David Hallwright wants Simon and Karen close, it isn’t because he values their friendship. After all, he keeps The Cock, his deputy leader and a rival for his own position, right beside him, apparently so he can practise upon him every refinement of psychological cruelty at his disposal. You begin to suspect he’s using his real right-hand man, the deeply unpleasant Minister of Police, Ed Miles, to unsettle, isolate and belittle Karen. Simon’s disenchanted daughter Claire warns him that beneath the saccharine friendship, Roza Hallwright “hates Karen, hates her”.

So things are quite fraught enough beneath the surface of this Kiwi summer idyll. But, as the skies blaze, the surf tumbles, the cicadas sing, the poor get poorer and for the rich the cocktails flow, the trouble is only just beginning.

First, Simon’s brother Ford, the older one, the one who has inherited a strong physical resemblance to their abusive, alcoholic father, who is recently bereaved and is habitually forthright about his deep socialist convictions, comes to stay. And then a journalist rings Simon out of the blue and begins asking questions about his relationship with Mereana, the “unsuitable” young woman with whom he recently had an affair on the wrong side of the tracks and who has subsequently disappeared. Against his better judgment (and the impotent urgings of the reader), Simon twice agrees to meet Arthur Weeks, his antagonist.

On the second occasion, Weeks ends up dead. The police take an interest, and it looks very much as though Simon will become mired in a scandal that will see him lose everything. On the other hand, paradoxically, he also acquires a bargaining chip – the only one he possesses – in the high-stakes game that the Lamptons and the Hallwrights are playing for the control of Elke.

The narrative engine of Soon is the uncertainty over Simon’s motivations. Is he as naive as he seems to others, to us, to himself? Are his choices, especially the bad choices, made of his own free will, or are they determined by the forces acting upon him from his past, from the present?

The hallmark of Grimshaw’s work is the very high quality of her prose. She creates atmosphere extremely well, the effect of keeping a very tight focus on the moment and narrating in short, sinewy sentences with scarcely a word out of place. Little wonder she is often mistaken for a thriller-writer.

Those familiar with Grimshaw’s work will know that she is fond of a literary joke and favours meta-fictional convolutions in her storytelling (a tendency that culminated in the postmodern Foreign City). Doubtless to the frustration of those who regard her as the writer of thrillers, this self-consciousness was also present in The Night Book, where Elke and Simon were engaged in compiling a kind of a diary together late at night that was also called “the Night Book”. Another “Night Book” makes an appearance here, as the screenplay that the hapless Arthur Weeks is writing about a New Zealand Prime Minister who bears an uncanny resemblance to David Hallwright (who bears, we can now reveal, an uncanny resemblance to John Key). But the literary cleverness is pretty much reined in here.

The novel takes its name from a throwaway remark Roza has made to her four-year-old boy Johnnie who, in the way of children being fobbed off, has asked a difficult question: what is “soon”? He is, she replied, an evil dwarf who lives in the basement. She made the further mistake of telling him a few stories about Soon and his entourage, and now Johnnie insists that she “make Soon talk” whenever they are together. The quite inspired fairytale that she spins for him (and for Simon, when he is within earshot) refers obliquely to the various subtle schemes and subtexts surging about amongst the company at Rotokauri. Soon’s talk is both entertaining and, for the alert, intriguing.

Just as intriguing, if somewhat distracting, is the pronounced resemblance – far from coincidental – of characters in the novel to persons living and dead. Grimshaw has spoken about how it is just as legitimate to use recognisable features of the human geography as part of the setting as it is to use recognisable places.

Rotokauri, vividly realised – descriptive prose is another of Grimshaw’s strengths – isn’t a real place, but we feel we know it. David Hallwright is not John Key, but the resemblances are of a quantity and a quality that continually keeps you testing your knowledge of Key’s character against that of his fictional doppelgänger. Hallwright is a National Party politician, fair-haired, a poor boy made good, charming and affable and with a penchant for mangling sentences. Does that mean John Key is as venal, ruthless and vindictive as Hallwright? There is a kind of salacious, tabloid thrill in the asking, but it is hard to tell what is achieved by it.

For as repugnant as Grimshaw clearly finds the brand of politics practised by the National Party real and imagined, Soon is not about politics. The author scornfully satirises the privileged, shallow and self-absorbed lifestyles of those who are presiding over the yawning and widening gap between rich and poor; she trenchantly observes that while Hallwright’s government claims to champion those who aspire to better themselves, it is populated by people who have scaled the heights and used the system to kick the ladder of aspiration away behind them.

But for Grimshaw, ultimately, the political is the personal. Simon Lampton is susceptible to the allure of Hallwright’s golden circle because he is in full flight from the inadequacies instilled in him by Aaron, his brutal dad. So it is with Hallwright. Nature abhors a vacuum, after all, and it is the great, sucking void within damaged human souls that makes the world go round, that makes worlds collide.

 

John McCrystal is a Wellington writer and reviewer.

 

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