With the seams showing, Vivienne Shakespear

After Robert
Sarah Quigley
Penguin, $24.95,
ISBN 0 14 028437 0

Halley and Claudia, 20-year-olds living on opposite sides of the planet but “born under the same astrological influence” are stars set to collide in Sarah Quigley’s upbeat first novel, After Robert.

Halley, an archaeology student with a well-intentioned but infuriating adoptive mother, leaves London following the death of her beloved boyfriend, the Robert of the title (and father of her unborn child). Assuming a new identity, she becomes Haley with a single “I” and buys herself a ticket to a “place with space”: Auckland, New Zealand. Once there, she fails into an undemanding job peddling sheepskins and paua keyrings in a Queen Street souvenir shop, Kiwi Krafts. (Souvenirs, op shop clothes, retro fixtures – Quigley details tat with relish.)

Rescued by the saintly Leith, a chef, from a scruffy Remuera backpackers’ hostel with “peeling turrets and gaps in its teeth … like a fallen woman – an ex-aristocrat who’s lost her looks and money but still lingers on in familiar territory”, Haley is on course to collide with the fabulous Claudia, she of the Kylie Bax looks and no fixed occupation.

Unlike Haley in most obvious ways, Claudia shares her sense of being landed with an incompatible parent; and her sufferings as a misunderstood, fatherless, adopted child are part of Claudia’s personal mythology. Bored by a summer on the benefit, she takes a job waitressing at a Vulcan Lane café where she meets and develops a crush on Leith, who in turn befriends a lonely Haley and invites her to be his flatmate …

Quigley develops her cast through dialogue – Haley with the imagined Robert and Claudia with her mates Adrian and Ben, op-shop dresser and drug-supplying chemistry whizzkid respectively – and writes with generosity and humour. Her characters enjoy punning and word association and often think in idiosyncratic lists. (For example, Claudia’s first impressions of Haley are: 1) She’s too observant; 2) she’s too silent; and 3) she’s too at ease with Leith.) The tone is determinedly “up”. This is writing with the seams deliberately showing – conversations are often a bit clunky and the mechanisms of the plot highlighted, as when Claudia’s two friends disappear for a large chunk of the book and are reintroduced with “And what of Adrian and Ben?”

Here I must admit to something of a generation gap and the sense that I was ill-equipped to step into these characters’ 6-inch platforms and retro fashions. And I suspect that After Robert, like their clothes and choice of clubs,would be best enjoyed by Claudia and Haley’s peers. As a reader the wrong side of 30, I felt I was spending far too long hanging about with characters with time on their hands and little to fill it. Apart from Hal(l)ey, who seemed more substantial, I didn’t care too much what happened to these people, and at times I wondered whether Quigley did either. Where was the sense of real feeling that she has captured so well in short stories such as “This Is Not A Dress Rehearsal”, about a botched OE and a lonely return home (from her 1998 short story collection, having words with you)?

In many ways After Robert inhabits similar territory, but where Quigley’s best stories use compression as a poet might, to strengthen their impact, the novel feels at times like a long run that the writer will be glad to reach the end of. For me, the emotionally removed authorial voice was off-putting. Statements such as “She’s started sleeping with the family doctor” capture a reader’s attention but don’t keep it unless some connection has been made with the character. Instead I often felt I was reading about magazine people – Claudia in particular would fit right in on Metro magazine’s page of unflattering photos of beautiful and/or famous people at gallery openings and wine festivals. And of course none of those people would remain magazine people if you got to know them, which a novelist has the luxury of doing.

I remember years ago reading a review of a Margaret Atwood novel where the reviewer said she wished Atwood would try something harder. I felt similarly about this novel – that Quigley could do something more demanding and do it well. That novel I look forward to reading.

Vivienne Shakespear is an Auckland writer and former editor of the Evening Post’s book page.

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