Running from the past, Heather Roberts

The Night Book
Charlotte Grimshaw
Vintage, $36.99,
ISBN 9781869793500


The Night Book began life as a story in Singularity. Here it opens the novel, and then the plot jumps six years. The novel’s central characters are the Lampton family: Simon, gynaecologist “to the stars”, Karen his upwardly mobile wife, and their three children. Of the three, Elke, their adopted middle child, is of most interest. These characters have appeared before in Grimshaw’s fiction. In Singularity and Opportunity, Simon was a minor character to his brother Ford and half-brother Reid Harris. As a minor character, he had the author’s sympathy but, in this novel, he is one of Grimshaw’s more unpleasant characters.

I am not sure that Grimshaw intended that; Simon does not, after all, follow the dictates of upper middle-class, National-voting Auckland society, which Grimshaw obviously loathes. Karen does, and this is a change too, from a person presented as kind, if slightly bossy, in the stories, to now being a
National Party acolyte. In “The Doctor” (Opportunity), Simon reflects “I thought how much I loved her … I never feel a fool when I’m with her… .”  In the novel, there is no empathy for Karen, either from her husband or from the narrator. She is “unimaginative, insensitive … pompous and patronising”.

The plot’s focus is the campaign and subsequent election of National Party prime minister, David Hallwright. Grimshaw is good on the politics – if you are not a National party voter! I wondered if she should write a political novel rather than focusing, as she so often does, on the inhabitants of Remuera and related suburbs.

The portrayal of Hallwright is amusing partly because of his similarities to John Key – like Key, Hallwright is a self-made man and, like Key, he mangles his words. In one speech “His diction wasn’t clear and he mangled some words, but he made up for it … by outlining with dogged simplicity, the points the audience wanted to hear.” Hallwright is surrounded by a group of unattractive acolytes: the overweight, emphysemic Graeme, “part-architect of David’s success”, his blowsy, Trelise Cooper-wearing wife Trish (who appeared in Opportunity as a friend of Karen Lampton whom Simon did not like), Hallwright’s attractive young PA, Diane, and the gum-chewing campaign manager Ed Miles.

Of course they run a campaign that is good enough to get Hallwright elected. Although Grimshaw’s political leanings would appear to be left of centre, Hallwright himself comes over as more attractive than those around him. The reader can understand why he was elected – in a landslide, which marks a break from a government that “The public thought … was a bunch of blue stocking, ivory tower academics, all abstract principles and nanny state over-regulation.”

Threatening to sabotage the campaign is Roza, Hallwright’s second wife, a woman with a past. Roza is mercurial, uncontrollable and an alcoholic, and the campaign throws her off her fragile equilibrium. She had a baby when she was in her teens and that child was adopted, first by a lawyer who died and then from a foster home by the Lamptons. Roza knows this, but they do not, and the tension for her when she meets Karen and Simon is whether she tells them who she is.

This is complicated by the fact that she has not told her husband about the baby. Roza is not good at being in the public eye, and in the course of the novel gets involved in at least two situations, which, if they became public, would prevent her husband being elected.

The first is that in order to relieve her stress over the campaign she connects with an old friend who provides her with cocaine. Secondly, she meets Ray Marden, an ex-cop who has written a book about his trial and acquittal on historic sexual assault charges. Roza edits the book, which has been rejected by the publishing house where she works. She then contacts Marden to work with him on improving the book. When he realises who she is, he warns her off as he knows what bad political news any connection with him could be for Roza’s husband.

In fact Ray Marden emerges as one of the few decent human beings in the novel; presumably Grimshaw’s sympathies were with Clint Rickards and his fellow officers in the Louise Nicholas case. In Opportunity, the final story, “The Trial”, covers the trial and acquittal of Simon Lampton’s half-brother, Reid Harris, on the same charges.

Simon and Roza meet socially at a function for the election campaign and there is an immediate attraction. For Roza, this is because he is the father of her child; for Simon, it is the mystery she presents. The mystery is, of course, the resemblance to her daughter, who has always fascinated Simon in a way that he finds uncomfortable. As a release from the intensity of his feelings for Roza, Simon has an affair with Mereana, whose child he delivered when she was in prison. Mereana is presented as a kind of redeemer for Simon; so distant out in South Auckland, but with her life together in a way that no one in the eastern suburbs has.  But so little is she really known to anyone, including Simon, that when she vanishes he has no way of finding her; he doesn’t even know her surname. He has used her – and so has the writer.

The connection between the main characters lies in the pasts they are all trying to keep hidden. The novel is prefaced by a quotation from The Waste Land about the corpse which is waiting to be dug up: the corpse of the past which lies just below the surface and can come to haunt you at any time.

It is symbolised in the first chapter by the suitcase of pornography that Simon and Elke find hidden behind a gravestone in the graveyard which borders their London house. He discards the case, but the moral is that you cannot discard your past. The past may begin to “sprout” or “bloom”, the dog might “dig it up again”.  Simon, Mereana, Roza and David Hallwright are all running from their pasts.

Roza has hidden her past of the baby, Elke, and the recklessness of her youth which led to the pregnancy. Simon, like his brother Ford in Opportunity and Singularity, is hiding from the awfulness of his upbringing, particularly his drunken, violent and erratic father, Aaron Harris.  David Hallwright comes from a dysfunctional and poor family and was farmed out as a child to other family members. Mereana comes from the Far North where her father grew and traded in drugs. She cannot hide her past from Simon, but presumably her job in the café might be jeopardised if her criminal record were known. As Roza says to Simon, “I’ve started to feel the new self peeling away, and the old one’s there underneath. It never went away.”

The past has not gone away for any of them. Part of Mereana’s appeal to Simon is that the way she lives is how he lived as a child. He thinks, “He’d escaped from himself.” But he hasn’t and he cannot, and Mereana’s attaction is testimony to that.

Too many stories? I think so. In Singularity and Opportunity, Grimshaw used the structure of characters reappearing from one story to another. This has not met with universal acclaim.  Reviewing Opportunity, Linley Boniface described the device as “distracting and tricksy” (NZB, Summer 2007).

Grimshaw has described it as being like “a glass bowl filled with marbles – a large structure made up of small units which touch one another, but still leave room for air”. We expect air between short stories, but not in novels. There is too much air in this novel; the marbles need to touch each other more subtly. The connections are at once too obvious – the social interactions between Roza Hallwright and Simon Lampton, and Simon’s delivery of Mereana’s baby, for example – but also not close enough to make a convincing story.

The other weakness is Grimshaw’s lack of empathy for many of her characters. We don’t ask writers to like all their characters; in fact, the most interesting writing often comes with characters who are unlikable. But good writing needs to move beyond the stereotypes so that we understand the motives of even those we choose not to like.


Heather Roberts teaches New Zealand literature to international students at Victoria University of Wellington. 

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