Among the chorus of young women’s voices emerging presently in NZ writing, Charlotte Grimshaw’s is strong and distinctive. Her two novels Provocation and Guilt are set mainly in Auckland and evoke a city either drenched in rain, or sticky beneath a threatening storm. She has a panoramic eye which sweeps over the harbour and the hills, but not too fast to miss ferns “flipping and swimming” in the wind, “flashing their silver underbellies”, or to listen to the scratch of a branch on a window. Her characters have exaggerated personalities and unlikely names, and her merciless ear exposes the “gruntspeak” of the drunken urban young. She’s fascinated by the weird and different, although her protagonists are more circumspect. They are young women lawyers who work hard, who’re dazzled by extremes, drawn to the macabre. Her first novel, Provocation, was an ebullient examination of how far people can be provoked, how much a girl needs to learn. Guilt, although about a group of twenty-somethings, is really a sustained lament for Leon, Maria’s flamboyant friend who was killed one night in a hit-and-run, and the effect of loss on lonely lives.
It’s 1987, and Maria, “subtle, nervous and acute”, is a recently qualified solicitor in a juggernaut law firm. She’s disciplined, thorough and tidy, an obsessive cleaner of desk and kitchen. Tidiness is her attempt to impose shape and purpose on life, which despite her giggling bravado, she fears: “You have to take life seriously or you’ll end up in a dark alley with your pants round your knees.”
Leon is her best friend, her “last friend”. His house is full of stuff he steals “because it was there” from hotels, bars, and cinemas. His favourite trophies are telephones which he rewires and paints in a lurid Dali-like manner. They drink too much, but drinking lubricates their increasingly doomed performances – he’s an actor on the stage of petty crime, and she his hysterically admiring audience. They love each other: he gives her half his cigarettes; he drapes his arm over her shoulder as they walk home through wet Auckland streets; and once when there was a power cut in a shopping arcade, he held her hand in his small deformed one. They sleep together, but theirs is not a sexual relationship; they are “each other’s man”. As a child, Leon was taunted for his withered hand, and for being foreign; as a young man, he’s reviled as a “faggot”. Maria’s admiration for him is addictive: he makes others “flavourless and pallid”. She spends many nights with him because the man she desires sees her only when it suits him: that’s to say, when staring into the unseeing eyes of Chrissie, his girlfriend with whom he has terrific sex, reminds him of his own loneliness.
He’s ghastly Marcus Klein, escapee from leafy Meadowbank and suffocating maternal expectations. He lives in a flat in Grey Lynn with a bunch of “junkies and zombies all smoking and burning and cooking things late at night” because he’s writing a “searching and lyrical” novel about Auckland low life. It’s called The Hard Men, and he’s very relieved, when he wakes one morning in a sodden bed in terrible pain with a burnt arm, that his manuscript at least is okay. But where’s Chrissie and what happened the previous night?
Guilt is not a whodunit. The brief encounter with the police serves only to illustrate their insensitive buffoonery: there’s no real attempt to find Leon’s killer, and Marcus discovers why Chrissie vanished painfully enough.
After Leon dies, the novel’s mood intensifies. Maria’s fear that life has raped her seems to be realised. Her obsessive tidiness is meaningless. The world is still the same: “the dull garden defiantly green”. But Leon is dead and she “goes mad”. Words fail: the police convert his death into a “ten-four on the four-five”. Maria tells her senior partner that she won’t be in because of a “bereavement”, and her mother urges her to “keep calm … at a time like this, we mustn’t fall apart.”
Relationships disconnect. Marcus, the object of relentless Grimshaw mockery, is too self-obsessed to imagine her grief. When he does see her, he wonders whether he should lock her up in a back room – she looks madder than usual. With youthful solipsism, Maria can only rail at her mother’s inadequate response, an instinctive recourse to books: “A shock like this, what would it take? War and Peace again?” She’s forgotten her mother is a widow because her husband died – in a car crash. She’s also like her mother. A few pages later, she casts about for a “nice book”.
She dreams she flies over “a red horizon, dry stones, red dust, red rock”, and, as she drags herself round the city, it becomes T S Eliot’s Waste Land: “the city waits for rain, the air [is] still and charged … the storm clouds gather and still the rain [doesn’t] come.” It’s Wiremu Ihaka, the twenty-stone, shaven-headed bouncer who consoles her. He too speaks in platitudes. “You’re hurting,” he tells her, but he strokes her hand, puts her to sleep in his squalid bed and “keeps watch” over her.
In Provocation, the heroine learns that the life she wanted has to be earned. I was struck in Guilt how words like “fear” and “lonely” reverberate throughout the story. All the characters are fearful and lonely. Here there is less a sense of self-awareness gained than a determination to keep going in a world of drinking and snorting self-absorption. Whimsically, Maria is given a job in a furniture shop where she gets a “sizeable discount”: at least things will look okay while she puts herself together. But Grimshaw seems undecided about Marcus. He’s reviled by Maria for stealing her grief and writing about it. Yet isn’t that what writers do? Maria loved Leon: but Marcus the writer is Marcus the user, incapable of love. The final image of Marcus stalking Maria seems unresolved.
Guilt is a confident development of Grimshaw’s craft. Her characters have colour and energy: you see them heaving in the deafening roar of a Quay Street night club, or lurching home beneath dark, wet trees in the Domain. Her ironic portrayals of the weird and pretentious amuse, and you have admiration for Maria’s thin-shouldered tenacity. What next?
Catharina van Bohemen is an Auckland reviewer.