‘Provocation’ by Charlotte Grimshaw

Provocation by Charlotte Grimshaw

Fiction – paperback; Abacus; 288 pages; 2000.

Charlotte Grimshaw is an award-winning writer from New Zealand with eight novels to her name. After reading her 2013 novel, Soon, which made My Favourite Books of 2014 list, I’ve been keen to explore more of her work.

Provocation, first published in 1999, was her debut novel. It garnered much praise and was shortlisted for the Creasey First Crime Fiction Award.

A dark tale set in Auckland

Provocation is set in Auckland in the late 1990s and tells the story of Stella, a young law student living with Stuart, a much older man, who is a criminal barrister. He has a shady past and connections with all kinds of miscreants. He’s also rolling in money.

That money — much of it literally stuffed down the back of the sofa, presumably to keep it from the tax man — gives Stella freedom to do as she likes: to drive about town in a flash car, go clubbing in glitzy venues, buy clothes and other items she would not necessarily be able to afford if she was supporting herself.

This freedom comes at a price. For Stella is anxious when Stuart goes away on business. He has a few dodgy friends and when she discovers an intruder in their swish house overlooking the harbour her anxiety levels are stretched to bursting point.

But then things head in to even more dangerous territory, for she’s agreed to help Stuart with one of his cases; that of a 35-year-old married man, Carlos Henry Lehman, who has been charged with the brutal murder of his neighbour. The defence is provocation (hence the title of the book), but in the backwaters of New Zealand there appears to be different, more violent, codes by which to live your life.

A literary novel with a crime in it

Provocation is billed as a crime novel. On the cover of my edition it says it’s a thriller (“of prejudice, passion and betrayal”), but I think this is misleading. It’s by no means a traditional crime novel, nor a thriller. I actually think it’s a literary novel; it simply has a crime at its heart.

I had mixed feelings reading it. I loved Grimshaw’s often hard-as-nails prose, her authentic characterisation (especially steely Stella and her kick-ass attitude) and her ability to capture the excitement, rivalries and petty jealousies between lovers. And her ear for dialogue was spot on.

But I often found the storyline turgid. The pacing seemed wrong and it didn’t make my heart race at any point. The blurb told me to expect a thriller, but what I really got was a gently nuanced story about a young woman realising that life is not all peaches and cream, that the solution to your problems are never found at the bottom of a beer bottle, and that some men, no matter how rich or accomplished they might be, are simply arseholes.

Yet I can’t dismiss this book on the mere basis that it didn’t live up to my expectations. It’s raw and powerful and brims with menace, but is punctuated by witty moments, too. It’s full of atmosphere (Auckland is presented as a rather glitzy city underpinned by a current of danger) and it pulses with intelligence.

It shows two sides of life in New Zealand — that of the educated urban elite contrasted with those from the rural welfare state — and asks as many questions about social justice as it does criminal justice. Essentially, this is a book about power (personal, financial, political): who has it, who can use it and how you acquire it.

This is my 2nd book for #20booksofsummer. I bought it online second-hand in 2014, based on the strength of the author’s novel Soon, which I loved. 

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5 thoughts on “‘Provocation’ by Charlotte Grimshaw

  1. I find Grimshaw’s books uneven. I abandoned her collection of short stories called Opportunity, but I found Starlight Peninsula quite interesting. I think she’s a lawyer by trade, hence the interest in the sordid side of life.

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    • Yes, she was a criminal lawyer at the time of writing this book… but became a full-time writer afterwards, I believe. I was disappointed with this one, because I loved Soon. I’ve got another of hers in the pile, The Night Book, which I probably should have read instead, because it’s a prequel to Soon and features many of the same characters.

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