20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2020), Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Giramondo Publishing, Huo Yan, literary fiction, New Zealand, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR2020

‘Dry Milk’ by Huo Yan

Fiction – paperback; Giramondo; 92 pages; 2019. Translated by Duncan M. Campbell.

A book set in New Zealand, written by a Chinese woman, translated by a scholar from New Zealand, and published by a small independent press in Australia, Huo Yan’s Dry Milk has all the trademarks of an unusual book.

Thwarted ambition

Easily read in one sitting, it’s a tautly written tale of a Chinese immigrant whose three decades in Auckland has not lived up to the ambitions that drove him to begin a new life in a foreign country.

John Lee, once a librarian in Beijing, has spent the past decade running an antiques shop in his adopted city of Auckland. It’s the kind of rundown, overstocked business that people only visit to escape the rain.

He is married to a woman who is seriously disabled and remains nameless throughout the story. He only married her as a means to escape China in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution when it was discovered she had distant relatives in New Zealand. He treats her with cruelty and disdain, using her as a prop in his shop to prey on the kindness of customers.

He placed a glass jar on the counter beside her and made up a sign that read: ‘HELP THE MENTALLY DISABLED: PLEASE GIVE GENEROUSLY’. Taking out two crumpled ten-dollar notes from his pocket, he placed these in the jar, along with some coins. At the end of every day he would count the money in the jar, sometimes finding that as much as twenty dollars had been donated. At such times he would give the woman a peck on the cheek, as if to reward her, his dry lips brushing her withered skin.

Life holds little excitement for him beyond the occasional gossip session with others in the ex-pat Chinese community and his penchant for cooking elaborate Western meals, albeit on a tightly controlled budget.

When an opportunity arises to make a little money renting out the spare room in his house to an attractive young Chinese student, Jiang Xiaoyu, he takes it. But from the outset it’s clear his motives are nefarious, for he tells Jiang that his wife is his sister, then spends an inordinate amount of time spying on her, listening to her through the walls and cooking her meals in a bid to win her trust.

When yet another opportunity presents itself to make even more money, this time through an export business selling powdered milk to the Chinese (hence the title of the book), John Lee grabs this too — though it does take him some time to decide whether he can afford to do so. But the scheme, along with the student who lives in his house, is not everything that it appears to be…

The human cost of greed

Dry Milk is a dark tale about identity, community and greed. As a portrait of Auckland, it fails to portray the city in a friendly, accepting light. John Lee regards it as a “slow city” offering little opportunity, and even though he has connections with the proactive Chinese Community Hope Association (and is later nominated for an executive officer role), he struggles to fit in.

The narrative is underpinned by a creepy air of dislocation, alienation, voyeurism and misogyny. There are no likeable characters here, but their flaws, foibles and weaknesses are all-too-human. When John Lee finally gets his (violent and disturbing) comeuppance, it’s hard to know whether to cheer or feel pity for him.

There’s no doubt that Dry Milk is an exceptionally well-crafted story by a skilful writer. Powerful and thought-provoking, it looks at the human cost of treating others as commercial opportunities and leaves a rather sour taste in the mouth. I won’t forget it in a hurry

Lisa Hill has also reviewed this novella at ANZLitLovers and so has Tony at Tony’s Reading List.

This is my 5th book for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter and my 19th for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I bought my copy from my local independent book store last August for $22.95.

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Lloyd Jones, New Zealand, Penguin, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR2020, UK

‘The Book of Fame’ by Lloyd Jones

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 178 pages; 2000.

A book about rugby would not normally be my cup of tea, but Lloyd Jones’ The Book of Fame is a beautifully realised novel about the power of sport to transform lives, create history and engender pride in an entire nation.

Based on the real-life story of the Original All Blacks, the New Zealand rugby union team that toured the world in 1905-06, it reveals how a motley crew of young unknowns returned home as heroes having won every match they played, bar one (that was against Wales, who won 3-0).

These young men, who were farmers and miners and teachers in their normal everyday lives, had spent a year playing matches in Britain, Ireland, France and the US, storming to victory wherever they went and winning the hearts of sports fans who gathered to see them play. In a true spirit of sportsmanship, and in a time long before money and sponsorships put a different spin on sport, they were lauded wherever they went.

Astonishingly, given they had done little training apart from some exercises on the steamboat they took from New Zealand to Portsmouth, they only conceded 59 points, and won 976, across all the games they played in Britain. (Check this Wikipedia page for more detail.)

UK edition, published by John Murray in 2008

Unusual structure and point of view

Rather than tell the story from one person’s point-of-view, Jones chooses to tell it from a collective voice to further cement the idea that this is a story about a team. He structures it around seven parts, which chart the evolution of a successful sports team from a group of strangers. And he writes it in a lyrical manner, setting out his prose like stanzas in a 174-page long-form poem.

Somehow, despite this unusual structure, the book works as a powerful hymn to another time and place. It is a fascinating portrait of travel before the age of commercial airlines; of the world of sport before it became professionalised; and of a team that did things differently (the All Blacks famously introduced several innovations to rugby, including the idea that each player in the scrum had a specific role to play).

Space was our medium
our play stuff
we championed the long view
the vista
the English settled for the courtyard

 

The English saw a thing
we saw the space in between
The English saw a tackler
we saw space either side
The English saw an obstacle
we saw an opportunity
The English saw a needle
we saw its mean eye
The English saw a tunnel
we saw a circular understanding
The formality of doorways caused the English to stumble into one another and compare ties
while we sailed through like the proud figureheads we were
The English were preoccupied with mazes
we preferred the lofty ambition of Invercargill’s streets

Jones depicts the ups and downs of travelling between matches; the injuries the players put up with; the hopes and fears of the men, and their wonder at being abroad and discovering new people and places and food and customs; and the team’s encounters with local fans, including the women with eyes for rugged New Zealanders.

And by contrasting the team’s success against the political and global news stories of the day, he shows how the All Blacks tour often eclipsed everything in its wake, garnering column inches after column inches in all the leading newspapers.

On the field we moved to the whirring breath of cameras

Men crouched under black hoods aimed their tripods at us
or, as it sometimes happened
you might look up from breakfast
with a mouthful of toast
to find a man with a white napkin draped over his wrist
staring back

Admittedly, the style can wear thin after a while, but it’s a short read so it didn’t actually worry me. I found myself surprisingly enthralled by this tale of a rugby team that forged the All Blacks legend and now I want to read more by this talented writer.

This is my 2nd book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I purchased this book secondhand last August. It wasn’t until I got it home that I realised it is a signed copy.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Author, Book review, Charlotte Grimshaw, Fiction, literary fiction, New Zealand, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR40, Vintage

‘The Night Book’ by Charlotte Grimshaw

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. 

20 books of summer (2017), Abacus, Author, Charlotte Grimshaw, crime/thriller, Fiction, literary fiction, New Zealand, Publisher, Setting

‘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. 

Author, Catherine Lacey, Fiction, Granta, literary fiction, New York, New Zealand, Publisher, Setting

‘Nobody is Ever Missing’ by Catherine Lacey

Nobody-is-ever-missing

Fiction – paperback; Granta; 256 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I must admit to getting a bit tired of reading contemporary novels about marriages gone wrong which are told entirely from the wife’s angst-ridden perspective — think Hausfrau and Dept. Of Speculation — but Catherine Lacey’s Nobody is Ever Missing is cut from (slightly) different cloth.

Running away to the other side of the world

For a start, there’s no sex in this novel, there’s no affair, indeed there doesn’t appear to be any good reason as to why the narrator, Elyria, would want to leave her stable life in Manhattan to do something totally unpredictable, irresponsible and dangerous. But that’s what she does. She buys a one-way ticket to New Zealand, presumably to get as far away from her husband as possible, and tells no one of her plans. She doesn’t even leave a note.

On the other side of the world, with little more than a scrap of paper with an address scrawled on it to guide her, she hitchhikes from the north island to the south, having mini adventures and escapades along the way, until she lands at the farm she intended to find. Here, she moves in with Werner, a writer she once met in Manhattan, who casually invited her to stay in his extra room if she ever wanted to visit New Zealand.

Their relationship is purely platonic — she tends his garden in exchange for room and board — until she overstays her visit and is asked, quite forcefully, to move on. From there, Elly’s  adventure descends into a kind of madness as she grapples with her past, her current and her future.

A hyperactive voice

What I liked most about this book was Elly’s voice — it’s hyperactive, energised and full of mordant humour — reflected in breathless prose characterised by long, convoluted sentences that loop back on themselves or unfurl into unexpected directions. The following is a good example:

What I meant was I knew I had to do something that I didn’t know how to do, which was leaving the adult way, the grown-up way, stating the problem, filling out the paperwork, doing all those adult things, but I knew that wasn’t the whole problem, that I didn’t just want a divorce from my husband, but a divorce from everything, to divorce my own history; I was being pushed by currents, by unseen things, memories and imaginations and fears swirled together — this was one of those things you figure out years later but it’s not the kind of thing you can explain to an almost stranger in a broom closet while you’re mostly drunk and you barely know where you are or why you are there or why some people can smell secrets.

For much of the novel Elly is trying to figure stuff out, so what you get is a kind of mental diarrhea on the page, full of her thoughts and insights spilled out without any kind of filter. What she thinks and what she does often reveals her alarmingly naivety, but there are occasional flashes of brilliance that show she’s mature beyond her years.

Nobody-is-ever-missing-US-version

And while you could bill  Nobody is Ever Missing as a road adventure, it’s more akin to a psychological journey  in which the narrator tries to find herself without going completely mad. It’s occasionally frustrating to see her repeat mistakes over and over, or to think about the same things continually, and I admit that by the time I’d got half way through this book I was finding Elly’s company more of a chore than a joy. Indeed, once she’d reached Werner’s farm I was bored with the whole damn adventure and wish she’d just get back on that plane and save her marriage.

But it’s worth hanging in there. That’s because the author cleverly holds back key bits of information, so we’re never quite sure of Elly’s motivations until little revelations get dropped in and you begin to understand some of what is going on. The narrative jumps backwards and forwards in time too, inline with Elly’s memories, so that a disjointed picture begins to build up of her past life in New York where she made a living as a writer on a soap opera and married a mathematics professor much older than herself.

Key to all this — her current state of mind, her crumbling marriage, her desire to find herself — is the suicide of her adopted sibling, which runs like a refrain throughout the entire story, which is as much about loss (and grief) as it is about the search for meaning.

All up, I enjoyed (and admired) Nobody is Ever Missing. It’s very much about what it is to be human, to love and to be loved, and how important it is to find a place for ourselves in a complex world where nothing stays the same for very long.

Author, Book review, Charlotte Grimshaw, Fiction, Jonathan Cape, literary fiction, New Zealand, Publisher, Setting

‘Soon’ by Charlotte Grimshaw

Soon

Fiction – hardcover; Jonathan Cape; 320 pages; 2013.

Charlotte Grimshaw is a lawyer-turned-writer from New Zealand with quite an extensive back catalogue to her name, but until Soon was published in the UK last year I had never heard of her.

The novel, which has reputedly been on the “bestseller list in New Zealand every week since publication there”, turned out to be a real “find”. It was such a delicious and powerful read that I’ve promptly ordered several more of Grimshaw’s novels and will look forward to reading them in due course.

Not your average summer holiday

Soon takes a time-worn, almost clichéd setting — that of a summer holiday where two lots of people happily coexist until a new person enters the scene to disturb the equilibrium — but gives it several refreshing (and dark) twists.

The first is that this is no usual set of holidaymakers — it’s the Prime Minister of New Zealand, David Hallwright, no less, and he’s spending his summer in a three-storey house by the coast with the people he holds dearest: his trophy wife, Roza, and their five-year-old son, Johnnie; his best friend Simon Lampton, who is a doctor, Simon’s wife Karen and their teenage children, Claire, Elke and Marcus; the Minister of Police, Ed Miles, and his wife Juliet; and his deputy, known as “The Cock”, and his vacuous wife Sharon.

The second is that there is a bit of a power play going on — and not in the way you might suspect. Although David and Simon are friends (“What I like about you is that you’re not political. Your mind’s on other things. That’s so refreshing to me”), they are connected in another, quite unusual, way:

When he married her, David’s second wife Roza had been keeping a secret. It was not a sensational one, as secrets go: aged sixteen, she had given birth to a baby and adopted her out. Eight years later, after the adoption and a number of foster placings had failed, the girl, Elke, had been adopted by Dr Simon Lampton and his wife Karen. In the following years, the Lamptons had come to love Elke as their own. But just before David Hallwright had been elected Prime Minister, Roza had located the child, and had introduced herself to the Lamptons (and revealed herself to David) as the birth mother.

The two mothers are now best friends — or so everyone thinks — and the two families have become close because of their shared love for Elke, who has grown into a rather beautiful, self-confident young woman. But Elke is now preparing to leave home for the first time to go to university and Karen is anxious that she will be lost to them forever. It doesn’t help that the Hallwrights are pushing Elke to come and live with them.

So before the events of the novel really get underway, Grimshaw has introduced a simmering tension between these two supposedly close families. But that’s just the half of it.

Extra twists

Additionally, there are two pivotal moments in this book that raise the tension — and the stakes — even higher.

Simon receives an unexpected phone call from a journalist researching the disappearance of a Greek-Maori woman called Mereana Kostas, the same woman that Simon once had a secret affair with. And then Simon’s older brother Ford turns up to disturb the relative peace and quiet of the holidaymakers: he’s vehemently opposed to the right-wing Government and isn’t afraid to speak his mind about the less than fair policies it has adopted.

Things really come to a head when a crime is committed, but to say any more would give the game away…

A tense read

Soon, if you haven’t guessed already, is a novel brimming with all kinds of anxieties and strains. This is mirrored in the relations between the characters, which are all very complicated and messy. There’s an interesting sub-plot between Simon and Roza, which revolves around whether they will act on their sexual attraction to one another, and another between Simon and the journalist as to whether his affair will be exposed to the world.

It’s testament to Grimshaw’s skill as a writer that she makes the reader want to keep turning the pages despite most of these characters, perhaps with the exception of Simon, being hugely unlikable. (Think The Slap but set in New Zealand.) The way in which she juggles multiple storylines between this mish-mash of characters is superb, too, so that as a reader I was constantly surprised by the unfolding of events.

Unfortunately, there was one element that I think didn’t work. This involves Roza narrating a rather menacing story to Johnnie about a badly behaved character called Soon. This has uncanny parallels to events happening in the real world, but I felt this merely got in the way of the rest of the narrative. That’s a minor quibble, however.

Politics in action

Perhaps the thing I liked most about this exhilarating novel (and exhilarating is exactly the right word to describe it because it often left me feeling breathless and on edge) is the glimpse it provides, not only of modern New Zealand society, in which the gap between rich and poor has widened, but the people in power who have helped create it.

And while I’m not a fan of political novels, per se, I found much to enjoy in this one. Despite there being an unwritten rule that house guests cannot talk politics (they’re on holiday after all), there are several eye-opening conversations between the PM and his minsters about how his party should go about winning the next election that make you realise just how cynical, manipulative and immoral modern politicians have become.

Soon is a rather seductive novel, in all senses of the word. It draws you in to a closed, protected world and shows people acting at their most primal. It’s a literary page-turner of the finest order, one that is deliciously dark, atmospheric and deeply unsettling. I won’t forget it in a hurry.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Kerri Hulme, literary fiction, New Zealand, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘The Bone People’ by Kerri Hulme

BonePeople

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 546 pages; 1984.

Set in remote New Zealand, Kerri Hulme’s The Bone People won the Booker Prize in 1985.

It tells the story of the ties that bind three amazingly different people together: Kerewin, an unconventional female artist who has turned her back on her family and an ordinary way of life to live alone in a tower by the sea; shipwrecked Simon, a mute boy with unusual scarring on his body who has strange behavioural problems and an aversion to haircuts; and Joe, a Maori widower who fosters Simon by providing love and heavy-handed violence in equal measure.

Beautifully written with uncannily realistic accounts of the blossoming friendship between the three characters, this fable-like story is funny, cruel and moving. It is a testament to love, friendship and family, and worth the effort despite the complicated style, the depressing/distressing twist in the last third and the sometimes confusing passages of inner dialogue.