Wednesday, May 05, 2010


A happy band of book lovers crowded in to Unity Books, Auckland last night for the launch of Charlotte Grimshaw's fourth novel, The Night Book.

The Bookman is in Thailand so sent his apologies but Steve Braunias who launched the book, and is seen in the photo talking to Grimshaw's father, C.K.Stead, has kindly made his notes available for posting to the blog. Thanks Steve.

So: The Night Book. Soon to be the bedside book of the reading nation.
The reviews are in; in the Listener, it failed to wholly engage the affections of failed wit Denis Welch; in the Sunday Star-Times, Clare McIntosh gave it three thumbs up. Her review nearly drowned the book with superlatives, although the line I found most interesting was when she referred to the author’s “asthmatic sentences”. Behold, standing just there, the wheezing Grimshaw, faint and dizzy, her hands trembling as she reaches for another blast of literary Voltarin.

Launching the book is just like old times, isn’t it. It only seems like 12 months ago that we gathered at Unity for the launch of Charlotte’s previous book, Singularity. It was 12 months ago, at the same great bookstore, with the same lame launcher. And of course The Night Book has many of the same characters who appeared in Singularity; also, the opening chapter of The Night Book is copied, lifted, deliberately pinched from Singularity, in an unusual case of fiction imitating fiction.

And so the Lampton gang ride again: Dr Simon Lampton, the obstetrician, and his wife Karen, cocooned in the latest lace curtains designed by Trelise Cocooner. And verily do they ride out once more unto the valley of death, otherwise known as Remuera, upon its crumbling dunes, where the big houses with their swimming pools and tennis courts are built on sand.

In some ways it’s a novel about a kind of vertigo: the fear of falling apart. The Lamptons and their friends live behind carefully created barricades of wealth and status, control and order. But what are they trying to keep out? “Something is coming,” says one of the characters, and the sense of dread and menace is foretold in the violent thunderstorms which swirl above Charlotte’s Auckland, and in the ominously circling birds. Which is more curious than ominous when you think about it, because really only hawks circle, and you won’t see many Australasian harriers or native falcons in Remuera. 

But if things fall apart, perhaps the centre right will hold. The Night Book is set in the lead-up to a political election, when New Zealand seems sure to elect as Prime Minister a National Party leader who has accumulated considerable personal wealth, mangles his sentences, and smiles a great deal for no apparent amusing reason. 

We’ve read about Charlotte’s fascination with John Key before, in her excellent Metro column. She writes, “There’s something oddly attractive in this mix: verbal incompetence, inordinately cunning eyes. Something to do with struggle and potential.” She writes of David Hallwright in The Night Book, “His combination of qualities was oddly attractive: verbal incompetence, inordinately cunning eyes. Something to do with struggle and potential.”

But she writes something else in that Metro column, almost as an aside, in parentheses, like a memo to self. She writes, “Here is a problem for the fiction writer: consider a human subject too long, especially one so hidden, and you will start to empathise, to invest the subject with warmth, to enter a wry, humane, apolitical space.”

You can see her in The Night Book make a series of entrances into the space – and a series of exits.
But it’s not a novel about John Key. That novel would in any case surely have to be satirical, although it’s almost impossible to better Key’s own self-parodies. He was interviewed recently after his trip to the UN. First quote: “I had a really good conversation with Berlusconi. He was very animated – all those European leaders are.” Second quote: “Obama put his arm on me. All those US Presidents are tactile. Bush was like that.” Third quote, and my favourite: “The King of Jordan came and saw me. He has absolutely perfect English.”

Anyway. Not a novel about Key, not even a novel about politics. You could get away with saying The Night Book is a novel about control and disorder, about maintenance and collapse. She writes of one of her characters, “She had the sense that secrets grow when they are untold: that they become still more secret, more unsayable.” 

Consider that line, and you see that the novel is simply about what Charlotte does best: telling stories.

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