Monday, May 17, 2010

The Night Book
By Charlotte Grimshaw
Vintage, $36.99

Reviewed by Nicky Pellegrino

There’s something buttoned up and restrained about Charlotte Grimshaw’s writing, something as middle class as the characters whose stories she tells and, I imagine, as the people who tend to read them. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good writing, taut and spare. There’s no layering on of excess words, no meandering. And yet it’s so tidy and put-away-in-its-proper-place that as you read you can’t help wishing that she’d just loosen things up a little bit.The Night Book is an extension of Grimshaw’s two highly praised volumes of linked short stories, the award-winning Opportunity and its follow-up Singularity. There’s a crossover of character and themes, a sameness of tone.  The central figure Dr Simon Lampton is a wealthy obstetrician who becomes caught up in National Party politics on the eve of the election to please his sycophantic wife Karen. A father of three his most intense relationship is with his adopted daughter Elke whose insomnia means the two spend hours together in the dead of night. When he meets the National Party Candidate at a function Simon feels an immediate bond with the politician’s flawed wife Roza Hallright. What he doesn’t know is that she is a woman on the edge of crisis, hiding secrets from her past and present, putting her husband’s chances of getting the big job in jeopardy.

It all sounds rather serious but Grimshaw lightens things up by playing around with satire and a few in-jokes. The inarticulate future PM with a propensity for malapropisms is quite obviously John Key and she has fun being bitchy about Parnell matrons swathed expensively in flouncy Trelise Cooper clothes. This is a well-heeled world Grimshaw clearly knows well and she writes about these characters - who have a lot to lose and are wobbling on the edge of losing it - with clarity and veracity. In comparison the working class characters are more shallow and stereotypical, and the interaction between the two social extremes not always credible.
 The Night Book is a very New Zealand novel, thoughtful and contemporary. Grimshaw has a talent for reflecting our small part of the world back at us and there will be many Aucklanders who recognise versions of themselves here and may not feel too flattered. And yet while I think she is to be lauded for developing such a strongly individual writing style, and while I think she is smart and funny and observant, I’m hoping that in her next work of fiction Grimshaw feels able to leave characters like Dr Simon Lampton behind and move on to something quite different.

Nicky Pellegrino,  a succcesful author of popular fiction, (her former title The Italian Wedding was published in May 2009 while her latest, Recipe for Life was published by Orion this month), is also the Books Editor of the Herald on Sunday where the above piece was first published on 16 May. 

The following Booklover piece also appeared in yesterday's Herald on Sunday.


Helen Medlyn
sings the role of Marcellina in The NBR New Zealand Opera’s production of The Marriage of Figaro

The book I love most is...a collection of poems by the American poet, Billy Collins called Sailing Alone Around the Room. I've only had this book for seven or eight years, but it's very dog-eared, because I dip into it on a pretty regular basis. Billy's way with words totally floats my boat!

The book I'm reading right now is...The Far Country by Nevil Shute. My Mum died at the end of 2008 and my father no longer reads, due to his dementia, so Iinherited' my family's books. I'm so enjoying revisiting books I haven't read for years...some, not since I was a teenager, which was a hundred years ago when the world was flat!

The book that changed me is
...a series of books. Since gobbling up books such as The Lord of the Rings and 2001: A Space Odyssey in my youth, I’ve always had a penchant for fantasy and science fiction, so it was inevitable that I would come across the author Stephen R. Donaldson. His The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant The Unbeliever turned my head around, but I suppose the series of books of his which impacted on me the most was The Gap.

The book I wish I'd never read was…
a book by Joyce Carol Oates. I can't even remember the name of it. I do recall, however, that as I read it, I started to feel depressed and weighed down by the conflict, the negativity, the evil that roared off the pages. It was so nihilistic. There didn't seem to be a ray of hope or redemption anywhere. I felt physically sick reading it and found it impossible to finish. In the end, I had to throw it away. Literally.

The Marriage of Figaro is being performed in Wellington and Auckland. Further info

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