A less than perky light, Stevan Eldred-Grigg

Chris Else
Random House, $27.99,
ISBN 9781869790134

Show of Hands
Anthony McCarten
Random House, $29.99,
ISBN 9781869419950

Swimmer’s Rope 
Stephanie Johnson
Random House, $29.99,
ISBN 9781869790257

At the first look there’s not much to tie these three novels together. Two are set in New Zealand but one is not. Two depict a romantic relationship but one does not. Two are concerned with heterosexual romance, while one is an outlier. A reader who takes the time to finish all three will find however that the pages often have more in common than might otherwise be expected. All three are good books, but they’re all good in the same way. All portray dysfunctional relationships between damaged people. All combine a sympathetic eye with a critical, even condemnatory, look at the messed up things the protagonists do when their relationships don’t go the way they want them to.

Likely to be the most popular of the three is Chris Else’s Gith. Anybody who’s kept half an eye on the telenews in the past 20 years will be familiar with the premise. A sleepy rural community is riven asunder by a high profile murder, the prejudices and insecurities of the townsfolk laid bare as they are forced to reexamine their etc etc. I could go on, but you get the picture. Thankfully, like three-quarters of murder mysteries and all of the good ones, finding out who did the deed is not the point of reading Gith. Slipping a murder into a character-driven story is akin to putting water in an ant’s nest – it speeds up and ramifies behaviours that the author may feel unable to explore when events follow a more pedestrian course. I’ve done it myself.

The real story here is the relationship between the viewpoint character, Ken, and the other chief character, Anneke. Ken is a slovenly yet compos mentis mechanic. Anneke is a mentally disabled girl in his care. A relationship between two adults in which one is caregiver for the other is potentially a moral minefield. Else, to his credit, avoids the cliché of active, saintly care-giver and docile, passive care-recipient. The relationship between the two is by no means easy. Both characters have their good and bad points. If anything the characters are a bit too well-rounded. Our viewpoint character is very good at communicating with his disadvantaged partner, and we as the audience get the benefit of his proficiency. This makes those characters who simply see a girl who is less-than-fully-there pretty unsympathetic. Perhaps that’s the point.

There’s no real resolution, or at least there’s no resolution to the interesting parts. Not that that’s a bad thing – far from it! – but there is a neat and tidy tying-up of the murder-mystery, which makes me feel rather confused. Did Else intend such tidiness to leave us satisfied, even though the future of the characters’ relationship is as unclear as it was when we began? Or did he intend to leave us dissatisfied – in which case, why give so many words to spelling out exactly who killed whom, and how, and why? Was some kind of contrast intended? Else seems overly impressed with the twisty path of detective work down which he’s led us. I can see him grinning to himself as he penned the climax: “Haha! They’ll never guess that character X did that to character Y!” You either like this kind of gotcha literature or not. Frankly, I’d rather play a game of Cluedo and afterwards sit down with a good book.

Anthony McCarten doesn’t fall into this trap, eschewing the criminal in favour of the grotesque but lawful. Show of Hands makes the most of the excruciatingly contemporary venue of a touch-the-truck contest to examine two different approaches to life. The protagonists are Tom and Jess. Tom, an infuriatingly self-regarding go-getter, glosses every petty struggle of his life with a heroic narrative in which he and his mighty brain wage war on the stupid masses. Jess, an infuriatingly self-sabotaging traffic warden, struggles to stand up to the people who casually oppress and deny her, not least her domineering mother.

Tom and Jess meet in the context of their shared desire to win the car, and both accurately assess the other’s merits and faults. From there it’s a clash of the two approaches to life. Tom thinks Jess a doormat. She thinks him a narcissist. Both are right. At the end of the story comes no resolution – each has begun to question her or his own approach to life and to agree with the other’s critique. There’s the possibility that one of them, or even both, might become a reasonably well-adjusted person, perhaps with the help of the other, but McCarten understands that the interesting bit is the turnaround, not the follow-up.

So that’s the concept, and it’s a good one. On the whole the execution lives up to it. Secondary characters mostly make sense, and it’s generally rewarding to find out more about them – even the sleazy car salesman masterminding the contest turns out to be somewhat sympathetic.

Overall, the world of the novel is quite extraordinarily bleak – a world in which everyone bears the weight of everyday, but nonetheless crushing, burdens. All characters without exception are at risk of being sucked into a black hole of some kind or other, whether financial or emotional or spiritual – or all three. McCarten may not necessarily be unconvinced of the existence of people who’ve got it together; perhaps he just doesn’t see a touch-the-truck contest as attracting them. Fair enough, but I can’t say I sympathise with his desire to debunk. Debunking such contests has actually been going on for longer than the contests themselves. As Charlie Brooker memorably tells us, the only thing more annoying than Big Brother is people loudly explaining why they don’t watch Big Brother.

McCarten’s skills as a stylist are not strong. His description of diesel fuel as “the last suspiration of vanished forests fifty million years old” reads like something I would have written when I was 15 years old. No, 12. Also we could use fewer meditations about how incredibly bleak and scary life is in a big city – in this case, London. Overall, however, Show of Hands looks cleverly and rewardingly at the various ways in which various folk try to tackle life, and does it without being preachy or judgemental; in the end, that’s as good a definition of what novel-writing is about as any other.

Stephanie Johnson’s Swimmer’s Rope is more ambitious in its scope, chronicling the whole lifetime of two protagonists, Norm and Lyn. We follow the pair from boyhood at the end of the 19th century all the way through to the 1970s, the years of sexual revolution, by which time they have come to their years of curmudgeonly dotage. A wide sweep of history, yet this is not a historical novel. The social, economic and political changes during all those decades of wars and booms and slumps and suburbs and sputniks are mere backdrop for the story, which circles around the fraught and often deeply painful relationship of the two protagonists.

Norm and Lyn are friends from the same suburb. Norm is an atheist, upper class and homosexual. Lyn is religious, middle class and heterosexual. Both are athletic types. Norm wrestles; Lyn swims. Norm lusts after Lyn. Lyn’s religious conservatism keeps Norm firmly in the closet. Norm pops out of the closet from time to time, grabbing the odd grope for short-term gratification, but his inability to move past his love for Lyn has consequences beyond the grief that comes from his own dysfunction.

Swimmer’s Rope shares some of Gith’s annoying whodunnit undertones in that Norm begins the story tormented by an awareness of some unspecified misdeed done with Lyn. The two friends have agreed never to speak about the misdeed. The misdeed proves not to have been as compelling as I think the author wishes, although perhaps it only seems that way to me because I’ve been around the block a few times myself. The book is really simply the story of two men who can’t communicate with one another and yet can’t let go of one another. We know there can be no prospect of reconciliation, since the book covers the entire scope of their lives. The world of two old men who were once two young boys makes up one complete grim package. The characters ring true. It’s hard to look away.

Any one of these books by itself would be enough to cast a less than perky light on human relationships, so reading all three in a row is quite emphatically a downer. Yet all three also offer real insight and some quiet moments of whimsical uplift that, while not necessarily alleviating the bleakness of the literary landscape, will stay with the reader for some time to come.


Stevan Eldred-Grigg is a Wellington writer and reviewer. His Diggers, Hatters and Whores: The Story of the New Zealand Gold Rushes is reviewed on p27.


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