Dark places, Margie Michael

The Children’s Pond
Tina Shaw
Pointer Press, $30.00, ISBN 9780473274023

The Faceless 
Vanda Symon
Penguin Books, $30.00, ISBN 9780143567202

I am Rebecca
Fleur Beale
Random House, $20.00, ISBN 9781775535492

These books form a disparate collection apparently linked only by the words “compelling” and “thriller” appearing on the dustjackets of each, words which mislead and possibly confuse rather than inform. All three do have an element of suspense, and so become thrillers in the broadest sense, but the real link is that they are totally compelling in very different ways. Jennifer Lawn has identified New Zealand’s burgeoning crime scene, noting that our crime writers use fully realised local settings with confidence and it is, in part, the development of the settings which unites these three books.

Tina Shaw’s The Children’s Pond, her first foray into crime fiction, is a story with two murders, but the focus is on Jessica who has moved to Turangi in an endeavour to rebuild her relationship with her son. Reuben is serving time at Rangipo Prison after his mother informed police of his involvement with fellow gang members in an armed robbery. The plot is intricate, with Jessica’s unresolved past becoming part of her present and causing her to doubt her innocence of the second murder. Shaw’s depiction of prison life is convincing, and the past she gives Jessica reflects some of the dark moments in the history of New Zealand’s residential care facilities for children and young people.

However, it is the setting in The Children’s Pond which is compelling. Shaw has created a Turangi and Tongariro River which have absolutely seduced me into wanting to explore the area and the river, and even, heaven forbid, put on waders and attempt fly-fishing. The descriptions of the times Jessica spends beside and in the river provide lyrical moments in which learning the river and fishing in it become the learning of herself, not easy and not ever fully mastered. These times which Jessica spends on the river become the highlight of the book and provide the source of tension and captivation, rather than the plot.

The disjunction between these descriptive moments, “full of grace, the line etching an ellipse in the air”, and Shaw’s sporadic use of short, abrupt sentences creates a jarring effect. Some of these issues and the slightly awkward plotting might have been remedied by tighter editing. However, despite having several novels for both adults and children successfully published, Shaw was unable to find a publisher for this novel, and so self-published it with her own Pointer Press. A welcome newcomer to the growing list of New Zealand writers of crime fiction, she brings an ability to evoke a particularly New Zealand sense of place.

Vanda Symon is no newcomer to New Zealand crime writing. Her detective Samantha Shepherd, tackling crime in Dunedin, is one of New Zealand’s favourite crime fighters, together with Paul Cleave’s Theodore Tate in Christchurch and Paul Thomas’s Tito Ihaka in Auckland. However, Symon has left Sam Shepherd in Dunedin and moved her action to Auckland with The Faceless, a stand-alone novel which relates the consequences when three very different lives become entwined. She describes Auckland’s underbelly as experienced, not by a feisty female detective, nor a disillusioned cynical cop, but by people whose connections to family and society have shattered and who can find no place in Auckland’s beach-and-café culture.

Max has a past, a life gone wrong, which he escapes by a self-imposed exile, turning his back on his family and his career and living as one of the homeless on Auckland’s streets, using alcohol and isolation to numb himself from any feelings. Into this isolation, occupying a different corner of the alley-way in which Max sleeps, comes Billy, a very young Fijian girl. Her exile is at the hands of her violent, religious father who disowned her because she became pregnant. Although she loses the baby, Billy stays on the streets alone, painting in dark corners, creating her own mythology on the barren walls, “something to inject a vibrant pocket of life and beauty into the soulless canyons of concrete and polished granite that is her adopted city, Auckland.” Over a year, the two have become close, watching “each other’s backs”, but still remaining isolated in their personal pain.

Bradley has a family, a career in an insurance company, a house in the suburbs and all the associated problems. He is resentful, he feels bullied at work and unappreciated at home. Stuck “in the hell of rush-hour traffic”, he follows an impulse to turn down Karangahape Road and with “a sense of sickened excitement” picks up Billy. Humiliated by his inadequacy, he believes Billy has laughed at him and he punches her. He panics and, worried she will go to the police, decides to lock her in an empty warehouse he owns. Max determines he must find Billy, but knows that it means he must go back to his past in order to help her. As Max slowly reintegrates back into life, Bradley’s life degenerates into a dark warped world of narcissistic fantasy.

This book is crime noir without the hardboiled element, as Symon takes the reader to the bleakest places. It is a tough read, there is no doubt, but this is also a book to persevere with; the writing is excellent – Symon at her very best: “The first rays of thin autumnal light greeted him from a fitful sleep that had been haunted by dreams of faces that melted like waxen candles grotesquely consumed by the very flame they fuelled.” The dirt and grime of the homeless matches the filth of the city Symon describes, but she tempers this with hope, the hope that she describes in the paintings that Billy creates and the tentative beginnings with which she ends the book. The book has a tight structure with the story being told from four viewpoints, each chapter providing a sharp counterpoint to the preceding and following chapters. This is Symons’s best novel yet, dark, compelling in its tension and in the Auckland it describes.

The world Fleur Beale constructs in I am Rebecca is disturbing in completely different ways. It is a sequel to the award-winning I am not Esther (1998), and is set just a few months after I am not Esther ends. Rebecca is one of the twin daughters of Caleb and Naomi Pilgrim, members of the religious group Children of the Faith, and, unlike Kirby/Esther of the first book, she is a loyal, believing member of the group, fully accepting the teaching of the elders who rule the church. The book opens as the group is moving from Whanganui to Nelson where other members of the church have established a settlement which will enable the members to shut themselves off almost completely from the secular world. The setting which Beale creates is one which is almost unknown to most readers, the life in a cult, but her in-depth knowledge is demonstrated not only in I am not Esther and I am Rebecca, but also in her non-fiction work Sins of the Father: The Long Shadow of a Religious Cult.

This story is told simply, through the eyes of Rebecca who believes in, and adheres to, The Rule which embodies the teaching of this community. When the girls are 14, they become betrothed to men whom the Elders determine they shall marry when they are 16. This becomes the testing time for Rebecca. I am Rebecca is an indictment of the manipulative power of such cults where the Leaders claim to be instructed by the voice of God, and the members are kept in isolation from the outside world and the opportunity to think for themselves. However, Beale is not disrespectful to those who willingly choose such a life. She is able to enter the minds of the young girls whose lives she is describing and tells of their concerns and beliefs convincingly. Beale’s story is compelling and tragic; it moved me to tears.

Margie Michael is working on a PhD on New Zealand crime fiction at Victoria University of Wellington.

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