Werewolf beneath the tweed, Barbara Else

Time for a Killing 
Shonagh Koea
Vintage, $24.95,
ISBN 1869414659

Over the last few years, I’ve declined invitations to review New Zealand books for two reasons. First, the local world of writing and publishing is very small. If you don’t already know the author or publisher involved, you’re sure to meet them eventually. Even if your review is a good one, it’s possible you will have deeply offended the author. The second reason is because of what I call “the Stephen King effect”. There are times when the act of reviewing in an almost supernatural way releases the psychopath inside seemingly well-brought up, pearls-and-tweed people. Suddenly, dribbling bile, these darker selves attack as if they’ve been skulking in the bushes until a particular writer passes by.

Experienced authors are wise to this uncivilising effect of reviewing, and it gives them a dilemma. They may be criticised for always writing the same kind of book – but censured if they produce something different. What to do? Will they provide their certain readership (and happy publisher) with a book they know will sell, or will they write what they please and damn the consequences? I think that in Time for a Killing Koea has decided with cool deliberation to goad the judgemental and see if they’ll reveal their uncivilised core. Good on her.

Each writer, more or less consciously and more or less overtly, works over similar themes in each book. Koea is an artist of the modern fairy tale. In her novels, as with traditional fairy tales, there are stock characters – and so there should be. We recognise the slightly fey heroine fallen on hard times. We sense the presence of the shadowy rescuer figure, the silent male on whose chest we, too, long to fall. We shrink at the often jolly brutality of insensitive male figures in the foreground. There is nearly always a powerful sense of place, of faded luxury, of some unusual emotional tie to a particular house. Koea’s stories have special magic. They resonate with their readers because the author works with familiar emblems.

In Time for a Killing, Koea uses her emblems in a rather different way. The house has become the central focus and an assortment of characters swarms around it. The house is inhabited by crass Kevin and Moira Crumlatch who, in its purchase, swindled the newly-widowed Lydia. They have perpetrated an equally horrid series of acts by redecorating the beautiful old house with synthetic silk curtains, plastic doilies, and “1960s furniture with pokey-out legs”. The ghosts of past residents gather on the stairs, appalled, as they compare its present state with the former tasteful beauty. Eduardo, Lydia’s husband, drifts there, as do Frederick and Florence, and Florence’s younger brother Claude. Even former furnishings are faintly superimposed, to those who can sense them, over the plastic and draylon. The ghosts worry about whether or not to drive Frederick’s car, the spirit 1937 Chevrolet, its warrant of fitness having long expired.

Meanwhile, 200 kilometres away, the lovely Lydia is now one of the favourite girls at the Côte d’Azure, a high-class knocking shop. The owner, Richard Vitello, wants the best for his girls and his clientele. He has flown antique roofing tiles in from Sicily, and provides his customers with wholegrain cocktail sandwiches for refreshment after their endeavours. When we first meet the girls at the Côte d’Azure they are trying on new costumes. No cliché black leather for these ladies – they wear beige chamois with black natural pearls, and resemble princesses from ancient Greek drama.

The plot of the novel concerns how Lydia, with the support of Vitello and the girls, visits her old home to protest about a newspaper article in which Kevin Crumlatch has lied about the condition her home was in when the Crumlatches bought it. On the bus trip – Lydia makes it in her nightie, as all fairytale heroines ought to do – she finds a well-dressed farmer who falls in love with her delicacy and remains like a shadow in her background. Koea plays triple trumps with her image of the house in this novel. Lydia wins back her old home, and a grateful millionaire client from the stylish Côte d’Azure bequeaths her an even bigger and better mansion that has enough Monets to share around.

This is a writer having fun, inverting normal expectations. Koea is writing a wickedly delicious send-up of herself and cocking an elegant snook at some recent moralising trends in local reviewing. This is, after all, the author who in Staying Home and Being Rotten played sly games with the image of the unwrapped present, and never showed the reader what was inside. In her new novel, Koea plays sly games with the entire narrative. The author lets us hear Lydia’s scream of anguish when she reads the newspaper article, then makes us wait through 12 pages of elaborate side-issues about minor characters before telling us exactly what is going on. Even in her writing style, Shonagh is out-Koea-ing herself with a lavish use of adjectives and adverbs, asides, digressions, ornate descriptions of physical objects. This is the author of the delicate fairy tale, Sing to me, Dreamer, with the sweetest-tempered elephant in New Zealand literature, performing a deliberate trapeze act between bad taste and discretion.

There is a third reason I usually shun reviewing. Too often a review says as much about its writer as it does about the book involved, and I do not wish to be revealed. However that may be, why should writers not sometimes toss off “an entertainment” as Koea has called Time for a Killing? It’s a sad thing if we must be perpetually deeply serious, read and write Literature with that ponderous capital L. A little mutiny is liberation, and thoroughly enjoyable. I wish more New Zealand writers had Koea’s confidence, that instead of scampering to produce what they think reviewers want, they used a teasing bone to provoke the werewolf that might lurk beneath the tweed.


Barbara Else is a novelist living in Wellington.


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