Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 320 pages; 2010.
Before I left London to move to Western Australia last month, I watched a New Zealand crime series called Bad Seed on TV.
The storyline in this five-part series felt vaguely familiar to me and later on I realised it was a weird amalgamation of two books by Charlotte Grimshaw: her 2013 novel Soon, which I had read and loved (it made my top 10 the following year); and her 2010 novel, The Night Book, which had been lurking in my TBR for about five years.
I promptly packed The Night Book in my suitcase and read it a couple of weeks ago as part of the #20BooksOfSummer challenge.
New Zealand literary fiction
Unlike the TV series, this isn’t a crime novel. It’s literary fiction focused on New Zealand’s “elites”, showing how all their money and power and career success doesn’t stop them from messing up their personal lives.
Set in Auckland, it is framed around two families whose paths cross in an unexpected way.
First there is the Hallwright family. David Hallwright, a right wing politician, is on track to become the next Prime Minister of New Zealand. He has two children by his late wife and has remarried a young woman, Roza, who is struggling with the idea of being a famous man’s wife. She’s trying to stay out of the limelight by working a regular job in publishing, all the while trying to keep her demons at bay — she is a recovering alcoholic, once had a cocaine problem and, unbeknownst to David, gave up her first child for adoption.
Then there is the wealthy, middle class Lampton family. Simon is an obstetrician and Karen is a housewife. They have three children, one of whom they fostered then adopted. Her name is Elke; she’s beautiful and intriguing and very close to Simon, who treats her more favourably than he does his natural daughter Claire.
These two families are brought together through Karen Lampton’s fundraising activities. She’s heavily involved in the (unnamed) political party that David Hallwright heads up and, together with (a reluctant) Simon, often attends political dinners and fundraising occasions. It is at these events that Simon meets Roza and the pair develop a mutual attraction — but for wildly different reasons.
Deeply flawed characters
As the novel’s richly layered narrative unfolds, we come to understand the personal struggles of all the characters but, in particular, those of Roza and Simon, who are both deeply flawed and nursing past hurts. Their strange and twisted relationship potentially threatens to not only ruin David Hallwright’s shot at being PM but could also tear apart the Lampton’s already rocky marriage.
Despite the fact most of the characters in this book are not especially likeable, it’s a compelling read, perhaps because Grimshaw treats everyone with great empathy — these are people that feel flesh and blood real. All their mistakes are entirely human.
The author is also very good at skewering contemporary life, of all the nonsense around social climbing and consumerism and conservatism, and she’s brilliant at showing how personal lives are often at odds with public personas.
The Night Book is an eye-opening insight into power and politics and how the choices people make can have long-lasting repercussions. I ate this one up in a matter of days; it’s definitely worth a read if you can track down a copy.
This is my 4th book for #20BooksOfSummer and my 23rd book for #TBR40. I bought this copy at the (now defunct) Australia & New Zealand Festival of Literature and Arts, held in London in 2014, after I saw the author at one of the sessions.