Provoking self-knowledge, Catharina van Bohemen

Provocation
Charlotte Grimshaw
ABACUS, $29.95,
ISBN 0 349 11122 7

On a grey Auckland morning in a large house overlooking the harbour, Stella is watching television. She’s waiting for the staff to arrive. The house belongs to her lover, Stuart Chicane, wearer of silver shades and Boss suits, a barrister who specialises in murder and drives a gold Porsche. The staff in Stuart’s house all know why they’re there, but the wryly named Stella, who “gets to spend the money” (stashed in teapots or under doormats) isn’t so sure why she is. “I help out in my way,” she reflects. (She has nearly qualified as a lawyer.) Stuart obsesses her, and they have fantastic, sometimes investigative, sex, depending on Stuart’s files.

Stuart is much older than Stella, has had a string of women, a wife called Mia, and a child. Occasionally at nights she wakes and hears him muttering, “Me, I’ll go.” And once she discovers a photograph in his wallet of a woman. “Who’s this?” she asks. “That’s me,” he replies. Despite the fact that Stuart’s ghastly friends tell her that she and Stuart “look good” together, Stella doesn’t sleep well either. “Why does Stuart want me here?” she asks herself as she stares at the black water in the harbour.

Stuart has a new file. Carlos Lehman, a happily married man with children, moved to a small town outside Tauranga, intending to develop an orchard. Border conflicts with his neighbour culminate in the shooting of the neighbour’s brother. Stuart intends to use provocation as Carlos’s defence. Provocation is “an act or series of acts done by the dead person to the accused which could cause in any reasonable person, and actually causes in the accused, a sudden and temporary loss of self-control, rendering that person so subject to passion as to make him for the moment not as master of his own mind.”

Provocation is not simply a fast-paced thriller in which slick city lawyers rout country yokels. Charlotte Grimshaw is interested in extremes of behaviour. Anyone can be provoked. She wants us to see that provocation is a powerfully destructive force between the two lovers. Their relationship is volatile, fuelled by drink, fast driving, secrets. “Sometimes I explode,” says Stella, “and throw things.” Stuart, who’s ambiguous though “impossible” not to love, becomes increasingly elusive as his past reclaims him, and Stella’s neediness and naivety drive him from her. Finally she’s alone in his house and must confront herself. Grimshaw’s linking of self-knowledge through provocation is achieved by a deepening of tone and convincing psychological observation in the final section.

A weakness of the novel arises from unequal characterisation. Stella develops as the plot progresses, and we have, perhaps, a qualified sympathy for Stuart. We like green-eyed Carlos. He’s a good husband and father; he works hard – a quality not appreciated by the boulder-gutted “inbreds”. But showing country people as illiterate stooges who brandish eels and lurk behind letter boxes diminishes our sympathy for Carlos, and weakens the story – even if the backblocks types do have a certain ghoulish fascination. The novel is crowded with bizarrely named characters good for a quick joke, but they’re too numerous.

Grimshaw sees and hears everything but can’t decide what to leave out. Through the drone of television her sharp ear trawls the cacophony of human voices. The psychiatrist employed to help Leah Levine, Carlos’s wife, is skewered by her own psychobabble. Grimshaw pounces on policespeak: “at the end of the day, we’re still at square one. Just keeping you abreast, so to speak.” She delights in “naughty” words of small children and swipes at local literature (“‘Stink bum stink bum,’ sings Harry”) as well as at the squashed sounds of New Zild: “I’m recovering from the flow” and “He’s gone to the benk.”

It’s been observed that many first novels deal with family life. Provocation is more concerned with how people behave under pressure. It is not overtly a novel that examines the family. And yet, family life is quietly celebrated. Stella dreams of marrying Stuart – she never tells him of course. She’s envious of her self-contained sister Una, mother of Harry and wife of Benedict, who patches up the bros after they’ve roared down the southern motorway for some “hilarious drunk driving and pedestrian-maiming.” Una’s kitchen is golden; she always does what she likes: “she has a talent for being happy”; and Grimshaw’s descriptions of mother and child are tender and affectionate. Leah Levine, who must learn to live alone, also fascinates Stella with the care she takes of her daughter, as well as offering the possibility of friendship – a new experience for Stella. When Stella finally goes looking for Stuart to tell him of Carlos’s disappearance, it’s the sight of him and his wife and child (“the three of them together and the smell of toast and coffee”) that forces Stella to realise that her life with Stuart was a pretence. She wanted what Una had, but she hadn’t earned it.

The tone of the last part of the novel is more serious than some of the quick and brash scenes of its opening. Could a title such as Provocation be slipped alongside Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice? Charlotte Grimshaw sprawls beyond Austen’s famous “two inches of ivory”, and her writing at times is breathless; but Stella is arguably on the same path to self-knowledge as Anne Elliot and Elizabeth Bennet. While their achievement of self-awareness is rewarded by a husband, Stella, at the end of the 20th century, must take consolation in solitude: “I am learning to live alone.”

I enjoyed Provocation. Charlotte Grimshaw’s sense of humour, her delight in words, her ability to create atmosphere through evocative descriptions of the weather and the landscape, and the novel’s strong conclusion outweigh occasional quibbles that there are too many characters or that nearly all the men’s eyes are bloodshot. An exuberant first achievement.

Catharina van Bohemen is an Auckland reviewer.

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