Sights set on creating a portrait of our times

"I'd like to create a big, interlinked portrait of our society and times," Charlotte Grimshaw told Claire McIntosh in a recent interview.

Charlotte Grimshaw
Vintage, $36.99, pbk

Reviewed by Lawrence Jones.

In the Victorian age such broad social portraits usually took the form of a huge, intricately plotted serialised novel such as Charles Dickens' Little Dorrit or Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now, or a sequence of such novels, as in Trollope's Palliser novels, while John Galsworthy later took the panoramic sequence perhaps to its limit in his Forsyte novels and stories to depict English society before and after World War 1.

Grimshaw seems to be in the process of creating her own variation of the genre to depict early 21st-century Auckland.

The first signs of this "interlinked portrait" appeared in her two volumes of stories, Opportunity (2007) and Singularity (2009), in which some characters appear in different stories in both volumes, with characters who may be central in one story appearing more on the fringe in another, and with overlapping events sometimes told from the points of view of different characters in different stories. In The Night Book she continues this process in a novel.

Simon Lampton, a well-to-do Remuera obstetrician and gynaecologist, first appeared in Opportunity as the narrator and central figure of "The Doctor", telling the story of his experience with a difficult employee, while his wife Karen appears in the margins of another story.

In Singularity he appears as a central character in the first story, the original "The Night Book", which had first appeared in the Listener six months earlier with that character then given a different name.

Grimshaw seemed to see that the story "belonged" to Simon, as she featured his brother, half-brother, and alcoholic father in other stories in the volume, and in "The Nymph" re-told the story of "The Doctor" from the point of view of the employee, a would-be writer who used Simon and Karen as starting places for a sharply critical story that won an award (a strange anticipation of the recent experience of Grimshaw's father, C. K. Stead, with his alleged use of the late Nigel Cox in an award-winning story).


That issue of the use of real-life models in fiction is relevant to The Night Book, for the Lampton family share the centre stage with the Hallwright family, and critics have already noted the similarities of David Hallwright, a wealthy businessman from humble origins who is elected National Party prime minister, with John Key.

Grimshaw told Linda Herrick in an interview that "There are characters where you might say there are elements that you recognise, but that's part of wanting to make a close portrait while creating my own fictional world."

In creating Hallwright she has gone so far as to lift almost verbatim a description of Key in one of her Metro columns, as a mix of "verbal incompetence, inordinately cunning eyes, something to do with struggle and potential".

The novel built around these characters certainly draws a picture of contemporary Auckland, ranging from a gang-hangout South Auckland pub to a Remuera National Party dinner party, with Simon relating to both. Grimshaw has said "I've discovered that once I've invented a character, he or she exists to me as a real person just waiting in the ether to be put to work again."

In the novel she puts Simon to work very well, as he touches on the lives of the others and reveals in the process that he cannot fully sustain his attempt to leave behind his origins (an alcoholic vagrant father, a bent policeman half-brother, humble beginnings) in order to live behind his mask of one at ease in the Remuera National Party set.

He cannot suppress his own critical insights concerning that world, including Karen, who is busy realising her life ambition of swimming in it, nor can he escape the incursions of people from his past into it.

A recurring image of the ordered existence he sought is a controlled, brightly-lit aquarium, but the original model for that dream is by the end dark, dead and weed-choked, and Simon is feeling the limits of his assumed role.

Simon is surrounded by other characters who contrast with or parallel his situation: the pitifully transparent Karen; her manipulative friend, Trish Ellison, who plays her social role flawlessly while hiding an inner cynicism; David Hallwright, who exploits his humbler beginnings to create a postmodern Horatio Alger story for himself; and the other major character, Roza Hallwright, who is anxiously and unsuccessfully trying to repress any knowledge of her past of alcoholism and a teen-age illegitimate birth.

A parallel to Roza in a different key is Mereana Kostas, who has struggled to maintain a marginal existence in South Auckland, feeling her past gnawing from within - her drug and alcohol-ridden adolescence, the illegitimate birth of her daughter (delivered by Simon) when she was under arrest, and, most painfully, the death of that daughter from meningitis after she had claimed her back and tried to make it up to her.

When she disappears at the end of the novel it is strongly hinted that she has been murdered by her deluded, voyeuristic neighbour.

This swiftly-paced, complex novel has already stirred up a lot of discussion and is likely to become a leading candidate for the NZ Post Book Award next year.

Further in the future it may become part of that "big, interlinked portrait", with possibly some of its characters making further appearances.

Certainly the ending has been left open, and the implications for the Hallwrights and the Lamptons of Roza's revelation of her past could be very interesting, while the disappearance of Mereana also raises unsettling questions.

We can look forward to seeing where Grimshaw goes from here.

Lawrence Jones is an emeritus professor of English.


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