From the University of Suffering, Joe Bennett

Julia Moore : Julia Moore P.I.
Penguin, $24.95,
ISBN 0140293833

Lauren Roche: Bent Not Broken
Steele Roberts, $24.95,
ISBN 1877228338


These are the stories of two New Zealand women who have triumphed over circumstance. Neither story makes cheerful reading for a man because many of the men in both of these books are groin-driven, possessive, violent, stupid or all of the above.

I don’t know if it’s possible to sit with legs akimbo but, if it is, Julia Moore is doing it in a purple trouser suit on the cover of her book. Behind her the Auckland skyline is bathed in nauseating pink. The blonde and
long-legged Ms Moore is looking pleased with herself, as she has every right to do because by all accounts she’s a successful private investigator who has flourished against the odds.

Because of mad bad men, Julia Moore’s led a tough life. In the first 40 pages she tells us how tough. I disliked this section because it was written on the assumption that the reader had already heard a bit about Julia Moore and was gagging to know more. I hadn’t and soon wasn’t. She comes across as smug. She seems to have good reason to be smug but it’s not a good stance for an autobiographer.

When modesty stops her from singing her own praises she lets a friend do it:

“Julia’s mind is like a whirling electron… my kind of girl … clean and tidy, a Cordon Bleu cook, she gardens and is the perfect hostess. She is frugal and inventive and, best of all, earns her own living.”


It is only when the book gets on to the business of being a private investigator that it becomes more intriguing. Of course Julia solves almost all of her cases swiftly, efficiently and with a mind to her client’s emotional wellbeing and dwindling bank balance. But beyond the implicit crowing, the cases reveal some unsavoury truths about the basic drives of human life. Love and money, it seems, are the root of all private investigation. The differences between the sexes are stark and they ring true, but although the men come out worse than the women, neither sex emerges prettily. All this stuff kept me turning the pages in mild curiosity.

Ms Moore may well cook, garden and investigate beautifully, but she writes awfully. I don’t know what’s happening in the editorial section of Penguin but Julia Moore could have done with someone at her side to deal to sentences like this: “Many of my clients ignore their intuition, but it’s these little instances – I call them pebbles – that when ignored, as I did, will eventually hit you like a brick”; or to blue-pencil the grammatical errors – “Having telephoned ahead, our client was expecting us”; or at the very least to discourage the author from reaching at every instant for the nearest cliché. No culprit in this book is ever merely cool. There just has to be a cucumber involved. And Ms Moore’s jokes, when they crop up, are about as funny as surgery.


But Julia Moore has not had an easy life. She was a mother at fifteen and a mother of three at sixteen. I can’t imagine what that would be like but Ms Moore actually tells me less about it than Lauren Roche. Not only was Lauren Roche also a teenage mother she was also the daughter of a teenage mother. If Julia Moore’s life has been no stroll through daffodils, then Lauren Roche’s has been a one-woman trek through a moral Antarctica.

Lauren’s mother hitched up with a string of bad men, filled herself with drugs and had daughters she could barely cope with. Once she tried to strangle Lauren. She died by her own hand at 32, but not before Lauren had made a few suicide attempts of her own.

At the age of eight Lauren was raped by two relatives of her mother’s current layabout boyfriend. At times the family lived off dog biscuits and tomato sauce. When Lauren got an abscess under a tooth, her mother told her nothing could be done about it. In her teens Lauren stowed away to the States – gaining some Ingham-twin notoriety as she did so – where she was multiply raped in the back of a car. One of the men used the blunt end of a wine bottle.

At times she escaped to the sanctuary of her grand-mother’s house or the houses of normal and peaceable relatives and whenever she did so you could sense her potentially blossoming. Here was a girl who loved writing and reading and acting. But she was battling awful horrors. Inevitably she ran wild, let people down, and sank into drink and drugs and the same mess that killed her mother. Lauren’s most stable job was as a massage parlour girl.

But she has a stubborn independence and an intelligence that eventually could not be suppressed. Driven to do better for her children than her mother had for her, she clawed her way out of the sewer and, astonishingly, ends the book as a qualified doctor with an extra degree summa cum laude from the University of Suffering.

Lauren Roche’s prose is as flat as a desert. But with a story this strong she has merely to lay the raw details on the page and leave the reader to get on with being horrified. She has a few quirks of style that grate but by and large she lets the story tell itself. The publishers, however, have done her no favours with the amateurish cover nor with the weak reproductions of family snapshots. The one of Lauren in her “favourite pink daisy dress”, for example, looks like Lauren in a grey daisy-free shift.


Joe Bennett’s collection So Help Me Dog has recently appeared.


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Posted in Autobiography, Non-fiction, Review
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