Complex account of contradictory characters

Jessie Neilson reviews Mazarine by Charlotte Grimshaw. Published by Penguin Random House.

Reading Charlotte Grimshaw is always a huge delight, sinking as she does into a place of implication, indirectness and suggestions of the sinister. With her multiple storylines and layers, as well as the intensity and paranoia of her characters, Grimshaw’s work often strays near David Lynch-type territory.


Her latest work, Mazarine, ups the psychological layers of content into an extremely confusing place, where characters and their motivations are contradictory, unsure, and yet persistent. The main focus is on Frances, a 40-ish mother to the generous and compassionate Maya, now out in the world for the first time with her boyfriend, Joe Libard. Until this time, mother and daughter have spent well-nigh 20 years in close proximity, and Frances is loath to let her go. Coupled with physical distance is Maya’s unusual, infrequent online activity of late, and Frances convinces herself, and Joe’s mother, the mysterious criminal lawyer Mazarine, that the two young people are somewhere lost in Europe, in danger.

Joe’s father, a linguist now based at a university in Paris, is Chechen in origin. While Joe is mild of political persuasion, older brother Mikail is considered right wing, ultra-conservative and religious, and possibly involved with the part of Brussels that spawned the "radical hotbed’’ responsible for recent terrorist activity within Europe.

This information and the suppositions it contains is all it takes to convince Frances to seek her daughter out, and soon she, and then Mazarine, are on their way to Europe. Terrorism has placed Europe on high alert, and America at this time, too, is in the run-up to elections and a soon-to-be Trump-governed world.

However, ever-increasing anxiety about her child’s welfare in an unsure world is only one part of Frances’ fragile state. She is a writer of short stories and screenplays and determines to produce her first novel. She has become consumed by the question of her identity, and plans while in Europe to start a Dickensian-flavoured tale of two cities, using London and Paris as guides. She is also perturbed by her inability to read other women, and her sense of isolation, with few close friends in times of need. It will be a meditation on disconnection, and the power of touch to restore.

Frances is adopted, with very tense relations between certain members of the family. Her adoptee parents are manipulators, particularly her mother, Inez, who for some reason inexplicable to Frances stopped speaking to her several years ago. She cuts her dead, blanks her, glides by her like a phantom in the street. This silent treatment, while rendering Frances invisible, is made worse by her family’s denial of it. They call her paranoid, delusional and in need of help as they disallow her version of her reality, and she starts to lose her sense of self. She thinks that perhaps she got closer than anyone had. To hold on to her core against this gas lighting, or "domestic terrorism’’, Frances had sought the aid of a German psychotherapist, Dr Bismarck, yet he is also suffering guilt, over his identity given his nation’s role in history.

Added to this querying of her genetic identity and the role of nature and nurture are her encounters with another individual. Now she starts to question everything she thought she knew about herself, seeing herself as destabilised and divided. As a teen Inez had accused her of possessing a "bad self’’, and now she is consumed by the thought that her selves are multiple, fragmentary, unable to be connected; that her real, true self has been hiding behind a facade. A frozen entity within herself that she had thought she had killed off has reared its head.

With her daughter Maya unaccounted for, and friends and family few, and so much stone-walling, Frances’ mental state has reached a point of high anxiety as she embarks for London. The world has become a very unsafe, uncertain place for both Frances and Mazarine as they attempt to make sense of both the ever-fractured external world, and also their own inner states. Doctorow’s epigraph states that every time a writer composes a book, their composition of themselves is at stake. With Grimshaw’s background in criminal prosecution, she knows all too well what it means to present fictional accounts of oneself in an attempt to let oneself off the truth. Like her previous novels and short stories, reading Grimshaw is always unnerving, as she digs into what it might be to lose someone else, or even to lose oneself.

- Jessie Neilson is a University of Otago library assistant.

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