Writing the self, again, John McCrystal

Charlotte Grimshaw
Penguin Random House, $38.00,
ISBN 9780143771821

“Long ago”, the central character of Mazarine, Charlotte Grimshaw’s latest novel, writes, “I’d had an idea for a series of books in which the narratives were linked in the shape of a flower, with a central point and petals growing off it, because stories aren’t necessarily linear …”

Story – and the especially significant story that we tell ourselves to be sure of who and what we are – is at the heart of Mazarine. Frances has become concerned that her daughter Maya, to whom she is very close, has fallen out of contact. A series of events drives her to seek out Mazarine, the mother of Maya’s boyfriend, Joe. And gaining little comfort from her, Frances decides to travel from Auckland to London in search of Maya. Her cover story (in case Maya turns out merely to have been negligent in maintaining communications) is that she is travelling in order to research what will be her first novel, the story of a woman who is struggling to make connections with others and, more fundamentally, with herself. She has barely settled in when who should arrive to join her in her search but Mazarine. Together, uneasily at first, the two women begin to piece together their missing children’s movements, and what they learn disturbs them. Joe’s family has links to the brutal ruling elite of Chechnya. His brother is a devout Muslim who has been described as “political” and “angry”, just a hop, step and jump away from “radicalised”. He may or may not have links to the Belgian-based firebrands who planned and executed terrorist attacks in Paris. And Maya was working with a book publisher whose links to an investigative journalist seem to have put him on the trail of an international computer hacking ring, right up until he fell in front of a train …

It’s easy for the pair of them to construct a worrying story from these details. Meanwhile, they’re writing a story of their own, a burgeoning romance. And for Frances, who was an orphan and who grew up struggling to connect with her adoptive family (especially her mother), all of it is just another chapter in the ongoing saga that is her lifelong effort to make sense of herself.

Meanwhile, too, the reader and the author together construct the master narrative, the plot, the events that affect the characters. Some of these are obvious. Others are arcane, dimly perceived or sensed by the characters, more clearly detected by the reader who is familiar with Grimshaw’s earlier works. The sinister Nick Oppenheimer from Starlight Peninsula makes an appearance. So does Jung Ha, the Hallwrights’s housekeeper from The Night Book and Soon. A London gangster who apparently has connections to the international hackers (and who seems to have died young) shares half a surname with Eloise, the main character of Starlight Peninsula. The effect of these resonances is similar to the paranoia induced when someone familiar with the Night Book and Soon reads Starlight Peninsula, although not so fully exploited.

And who is the mysterious woman whom Frances spies through the peephole of the door of her London apartment, “a face I’d seen before, with full lips, a turned-down mouth, straight brown hair, brown eyes”? Her physical description matches Grimshaw herself. Romans à clef are something of a family tradition: it seems like a logical extension to find the author haunting her own pages. There is a passage, early in the novel, which appeared verbatim on the “parenting” page of a daily newspaper, with only the names changed. So who knows what autobiographical reality underpins it, but in both Starlight Peninsula and in Mazarine, the main character is consulting a psychotherapist, and the notion of how the “self” is constructed according to context has clearly become something of a preoccupation for Grimshaw. The self – or more accurately, a self – is a story we tell for the benefit of others. In Mazarine, Frances arrives at a secure sense of herself only when she finds someone to whom she feels she has a story worth telling: Mazarine. Previously, she had been attempting to fit herself into the story of her adoptive family. That didn’t work so well.

Mazarine is an ambitious novel, if only because it is being asked to bear an awful lot of weight. Only a writer of Grimshaw’s ability could pull it off: she is an effortless prose writer, a superb manager of narrative. But the respect in which Mazarine lets the reader down (particularly if it is read as a stand-alone novel) is that the plot peters out and the reader is left deflated, as though watching a chess match in which the pieces have arrived at a point where there is a range of intriguing possibilities, only for a king to be meekly laid on its side. The hope, of course, is that the story will be continued, another petal added.

John McCrystal is a Wellington freelance writer.

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