Echoes of the real, Sarah Ross

Starlight Peninsula
Charlotte Grimshaw
Vintage, $38.00,
ISBN 9781775538226

 

“A collar in the studio!” enthuses John Campbell to his co-host, as he takes over his new afternoon slot on National Radio:

I have to share this with the listeners, because they can’t see you, but that’s so much more appropriate than what you were wearing yesterday! Not a t-shirt. A shirt with a collar! That’s what the listeners want, that’s what Amy Adams, the Minister of Broadcasting wants: a collar in the studio!

 

John Campbell’s orotund vowels emanate from the radio as I prepare this review – and Charlotte Grimshaw’s Starlight Peninsula features just one such journalist. “What do you think of this suit?”, the novel’s TV man Scott Roysmith, host of an eponymous current affairs show, asks with boyish enthusiasm. “It’s a lightweight weave … sourced from Italy.” Roysmith’s expensive tastes in Italian cloth aside, he is a man of the people, a “real journalist” who is known to be a deep thinker, who cares about social issues, and is still (in the novel) on TV. Roysmith beams and encourages his way through the novel. “Splendid!” he declares, using the word that he uses “all the time”.

Starlight Peninsula is peopled, as we have come to expect of Grimshaw’s fiction, by simulacra of the prominent, the familiar, the famous and infamous of Auckland society. Roysmith is but one of the vast ensemble cast, including his TV sidekick Mariel Hartfield, a beautiful Māori woman with a resonant voice, a heavy fringe, and sleepy eyes. There is an enormously overgrown German internet mogul who (we are told in a page of exposition-by-dialogue) is fighting extradition, and has been spied on illegally at the behest of the American government. Auckland’s mayor has had an affair with a young female employee. And as for Roysmith’s lovely, intelligent wife, she has “sharp cheekbones”, a “wide mouth and clever eyes”. Is this Grimshaw herself, in a Peter Jackson-esque walk-on cameo in her own creation?

Grimshaw has described her fiction as “a mirror”, and spoken of her desire “to create a big, interlinked portrait of our society and times”. Soon, the most recent prior instalment in her trilogy of the Auckland glitterati, followed closely the inner circle of a John Key-like Prime Minister, David Hallwright, his glamorous wife Roza, and his close friend, the doctor Simon Lampton (who is the adoptive father of Roza’s daughter, Elke). Grimshaw described Soon in The Listener as “a punchy New Zealand story with this idea implicit in it: it is not intellectually good enough to be apolitical.” Such political comment as the novel contains, however, is only ever oblique, located perhaps in the detailed rendering of the inner circle’s privileged summer holiday, the beachfront lifestyle of the rich and powerful. If only Max Key’s Hawaiian video had been available, what fun would Grimshaw have had with it? A plotline of corrupt machination runs through Soon (as it continues to do in Starlight Peninsula), but the narrative perspective is too closely aligned with that corruption to condemn, the high society hijinks too lovingly detailed to be damning.

One of the characteristics of these interlinked Hallwright novels is the passage of time between them (a few years in each case) and, with it, a marked shift in the focal characters. David and Roza Hallwright are now ex-prime minister and multi-award-winning children’s author, travelling in the south of France and living on their accumulated millions. Roza, once an intriguing focal consciousness in The Night Book, is now a distant figure, making a haughty cameo appearance at a charity opera performance, “all surface, opaque, beautifully unreadable”. Starlight Peninsula has a new central character: Eloise Hay, a current affairs investigator on Roysmith and, in her personal life, recently abandoned by a high-flying lawyer husband. Eloise walks the Auckland isthmus compulsively every weekend, haunted by the abandonment and by her past – a past which, we learn very quickly, involves a death familiar to readers of the earlier novels, that of her earlier partner, a brilliant young left-wing playwright, Arthur Weeks.

If Grimshaw’s minute rendering of the lives of the over-privileged and over-powerful enacts a political satire of sorts in Soon, the milieu of Starlight Peninsula is different. It is the media world: the bustling TV studios where Eloise works, researching a close-up story on the German internet mogul. What, then, is the purpose of Grimshaw’s teasing verisimilitude here? Is the novel a meditation on the value of in-depth journalism in a New Zealand setting? Does it make intellectual demands upon its readers?

Too often in Starlight Peninsula, as in its predecessors, Grimshaw’s knowing echoes of the real seem to be shorthand devices, used to sketch facets of character that are not otherwise apparent. Eloise is in a downward spiral at the end of her marriage, her character denoted by her compulsive walking, heavy drinking and package meals, and her interactions with her counsellor. And, yet, she is the former partner of Arthur Weeks, who was set up in Soon as a version of the real-life bright young New Zealand playwright, Arthur Meek. Eloise, whose surname is Hay (and the surnames are almost always important to Grimshaw’s roman-à-clef gestures), seems then to be a nod to the other half of the darling literary-media couple of the late noughties, Arthur Meek’s ex-partner, Samantha Hayes. Eloise’s flair for fashion is noted, matching her to her real-life shadow, and so – in a wrench for the reader – she is less Bridget Jones and more glamorous journo. The association with Hayes and Meek enacts a sophisticated exterior for Eloise that jars with the focalising consciousness we have been following; it is a superimposed aspect of character that is dissonant with the novel’s fictional world.

There are other times when such real-world reference serves little purpose other than the arch in-joke. Wellington airport is festooned with the paraphernalia of Roza Hallwright’s multi-million-dollar Soon franchise, “so tricked out in Soon merchandising it looked like a theme park. It wouldn’t have been a surprise to hear that New Zealand schoolchildren believed they were born in Soonworld.” This is all very wry and entertaining, but too often Grimshaw’s delight in re-creation pushes into extraneous detail. That the “gigantic statue of the dwarf – Soon – hanging from the departure lounge ceiling, looked like a right death trap if you were sat under it in an earthquake” serves no obvious purpose other than an ephemeral and distracting reference to a news event of 2014, when Weta Workshop’s eagle made one such rapid descent.

There are many pleasures here, nonetheless. Grimshaw is an able plotsmith and, in this final instalment of her Hallwright novels, the loose ends are tied together at just the right pace, in just the right configuration. Some of these ends had their beginnings in The Night Book, some 10 years prior in the three novels’ time scheme, and many derive from Soon; others are new to Starlight Peninsula, although it is not really a stand-alone novel. Its full resonances depend on those prior instalments, and the return of Simon Lampton, seen this time from Eloise’s viewpoint, provides a genuinely spine-tingling series of final episodes. If truth will out, it does so in unexpected configurations.

Starlight Peninsula also offers a return to the cool and reflective contemplative spaces that have made the best of Grimshaw’s fiction so compelling: Simon’s and Elke’s shared nocturnal hours in The Night Book, Simon alone in the water in Soon, the refractions of light evoking the social pressures in his mind. Soon offered fewer of these moments: its cast was too large, its plots too heavily overlaid with reference to Dickens and Forster, and with Roza Hallwright’s rather contrived children’s narrative. Starlight Peninsula is cleaner and clearer, balancing pace and plotting with enough space to render the heroine’s enlightenment. Eloise, who prides herself on perceptiveness, begins the novel in the blindness of grief and depression: “Layers of the world were hidden from her”, she feels and, by the end, the layers she has struggled to perceive are revealed. This progression in plot and consciousness takes place against a landscape beautifully evoked: the dark spaces of the peninsula, its toetoe-fringed dog-park, its esturine setting.

Fiction that holds a mirror up to its local and contemporary society is full of temptations: the witty, extraneous detail, the knowing side-swipe. It is also full of potential satisfactions and wonders. Alan Hollinghurst does it brilliantly in The Line of Beauty. Jonathan Franzen’s Purity, an overblown meditation on truth in the internet age, with a not-Julian-Assange to match Grimshaw’s Kim Dotcom, leaves me cold. Starlight Peninsula dances on the border between these effects, but does so while showcasing Grimshaw’s finest talents – those for crafting a terrific, tense story in a strikingly local landscape. It is a fitting end to the saga of these familiar characters.

 

Sarah Ross teaches in the English programme at Victoria University of Wellington. Reviews of the previous instalments of Grimshaw’s sequence can be found in our online archive: nzbooks.org.nz/tag/charlotte-grimshaw

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