A book club decides

by Margo White / 23 July, 2011
Our alternative judges debate the merits of three fiction finalists in the New Zealand Post Book Awards, which are announced on Wednesday.

The members of an Auckland book group are debating the role of the David Hallwright character in Charlotte Grimshaw’s novel The Night Book; he is the leader of the National Party, has a big fancy mansion, has a tendency to malapropisms and is clearly modelled on a prime minister with whom readers will be familiar. “But is it a character or a caricature?” asks Michael Hurst. “But that’s part of the appeal of the book. It’s not John Key but we’re thinking of John Key – but with thin lips who has these SIS men spying on his wife. I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks, ‘Hee hee, I bet that’s true.’”

The book group, gathered around Hurst’s fireplace on a cold July night, was sought by the Listener as an alternative judging panel for the fiction category in this year’s New Zealand Post Book Awards. The group includes actor and director Hurst, law librarian Suzanne Dowling, Fonterra executive Mike Cronin, barrister Brian Carter and lawyer Rachel Scott. (A sixth member is overseas.)

The finalists in the category include Grimshaw, whose Opportunity won the fiction award and overall Montana Medal for Fiction or Poetry at the 2008 Montana New Zealand Book Awards; Laurence Fearnley (whose Edwin & Matilda was fiction runner-up to Opportunity) for The Hut Builder; and first-time novelist Tim Wilson for Their Faces Were Shining.

Grimshaw’s The Night Book revolves around Dr Simon Lampton, a wealthy obstetrician who in the run-up to a general election has been reluctantly dragged into National Party politics by his star-struck wife, and who finds himself drawn to David Hallwright’s elusive wife. Much in the novel will be familiar: the weather, the suburban architecture, the interior design, the National leader, the way the National leader’s groupies wear a lot of Trelise Cooper.

“The Parnell matrons are very well-rounded,” says Cronin. “Michelle Boag-esque,” agrees Dowling. “Actually, maybe you shouldn’t put that.”
“And I think Paul Holmes is in it at some point,” says Hurst. “Although he might not have been. I was intrigued by the character assassination. It’s like picking up Rachel Glucina [in the Herald on Sunday], and you read it and think, ‘Ooh, who’s that?’”
Cronin jokes: “Ooh, there’s Michael Hurst.”
“But that’s what I thought was so fake,” says Carter. “You have John Key’s house, but you then have to change the name, and it wasn’t John Key because he had thin and mean lips.”
“See, I didn’t think so at all,” says Scott. “It’s obviously not John Key.”
Dowling, adopting a French accent, says, “My hairdresser calls him Shon-ky.” “We call him Donkey,” someone else says. A third adds: “I just call him Jonky.” But enough digression.
Grimshaw is renowned for her lean, ­precise, vivid prose. Hurst opens The Night Book at random and starts to read: “‘… outside the rain … was carried by a bullying wind’. See, that’s a neat little moment. ‘Bullying wind’ is terrific. She does that a lot.”
Carter is less convinced, and reads another passage to illustrate his point. “I mean, ‘A shaft of yellow sunlight fell across the bed’?”
Hurst laughs. “Okay, she comes and goes.”
They generally agree it is a page-turner. “Within the parameters of what she’s trying to do, it’s a good book,” says Dowling. “She’s not trying to be profound.”

Attentions then turn to Laurence Fearnley’s more overtly profound The Hut Builder. “It was the one I read last and I thought, ‘Oh dear, here we go again – I have to wear socks on my hands to go to school,’” says Hurst. “But it grew on me. It’s still growing on me.”

Says Dowling: “Because it was set in the 40s and 50s, I really related to it. The houses were boring, there was no individuality, it was just after the war, everyone was a bit depressed and the fathers were taciturn and produced legions of taciturn sons.”

The Hut Builder revolves around Boden Black, growing up in Fairlie in the early 1940s, the son of a butcher “lopsided with grief” and a severely depressed mother – the couple’s twin sons were killed in the war. Life for Boden is ordinary and often oppressive, until he is introduced to the Mackenzie Country, and the sight of all that tussock and snow awakens the poet inside him, compelling him to find words to capture its beauty and the joy of being witness to it. It’s about as New Zealand-ish as a New Zealand novel can get, of constrained lives consoled by a majestic landscape.

Hurst: “But don’t you think we’ve been there before? We know these elements.”
Carter: “But it had a sense of time and place and describes the South Island ­scenery in a way that really makes you feel as if you were there.”
Dowling: “And Boden had this very deep feeling that there was something else. I know that feeling, growing up in Palmerston North. I kept thinking, ‘There’s something else, there has to be.’ And for him there was. There was the Mackenzie Country.”

It’s true that not much happens, but that isn’t the point.

Scott: “The relationship between what he’s seeing and what is going on internally is beautifully described. It’s not about narrative. It’s about atmosphere, and character.”

They won’t go so far as to say it is a great novel (the group turns out to be difficult to please), but almost. “It’s knocking up against great,” says Cronin.

“It has an existential edge,” says Dowling. She is serious, but the comment prompts hoots of laughter.

“Oh, we don’t want that repeated,” says Carter.

If the best art is supposed to be the most irritating, the award – according to this party of five – would go to Tim Wilson’s Their Faces Were Shining. Written from the point of view of a devout Christian, Hope Patterson, it has, of the three, the most audacious premise: it is set in a 21st-century American town in the days after the Rapture. As in the biblical Rapture, in which half the people are raised to heaven and half are left to muck it out on Earth.

“Oh, what is that about?” says Carter.

“I must say I’m confused, and I get angry when I’m confused,” says Hurst. “I don’t know if that’s me. Basically, it’s a fantasy book. No, it’s a dystopian book. What is it? He’s expecting us to believe in the Rapture! Or is he?”

It seems everyone struggled with the premise, except perhaps Dowling, who laughed most of the way through it. Most agree it is often funny, and sometimes poignant; that Wilson is a skilled writer; that there are passages and relationships that are terrifically imagined; but …

Dowling: “Well, who thinks he’s confused and who thinks he’s funny?”
Carter: “Confused. Well, part of it is funny. The husband’s funeral is hilarious.”
Hurst: “But that’s character observation … but that’s not the issue. Is the issue that we’re all made to love on earth? Is that the issue? This book says the Rapture happens. It’s like believing a book about Martians.”
Carter: “Which is okay. We do read books about Martians.”
Hurst: “I know, but I don’t trust it.”

Wilson is TVNZ’s New York-based US correspondent. He moved there soon after the bombing of the Twin Towers and was in Biloxi when Hurricane Katrina struck. He noted in an interview for Their Faces Were Shining he had noticed that even after a disaster people tend to carry on with their lives as best as they can. Which is what the characters do in his novel.

Which didn’t wash with these readers.

Scott: “All the children under 17 have all gone up to heaven with their faces shining and all their clothes fall back down – but the whole shock of that isn’t really discussed.”
Hurst: “That’s one of the things that made it confusing. If it really happened, people wouldn’t muddle around doing their business. It can be fiction, but it still has to be plausible … I think the problem that gets at people is that at the centre of the novel is a Christian value and Christian tenet.”
Dowling: “He’s just laughing at it. He must be. It’s satirical. That religion brings nobody any joy.”
Hurst: “Well, if that’s the case, I missed the point. Or maybe I’m just an angry ­atheist? There’s a Christian message in here, is there not?”
Scott: “I do think it’s an interesting premise … it did clip along. It was a bit like those 50s American detective novels, with those short, punchy sentences. There are very few adjectives in this book.”
Carter: “It is different. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like it. And it does have an impact, because it is memorable. But it also makes you angry because you don’t get it. Well, I didn’t get it.”
Dowling: “Well, I laughed, and I don’t laugh easily at books.”

The winner of the New Zealand Post Book Awards fiction category will be announced at a ceremony later this month. Who knows what the five judges’ decision will be, but readers of this article will probably have predicted the preference of our five-strong book group: Laurence Fearnley’s  . Actually, all except Hurst made their choice before the meeting, and the evening’s discussions have only confirmed it. Hurst wasn’t sure at first, but eventually came to the same conclusion. “The more I think about that book, the more it comes back to me,” he says. “In a deeper and quieter way.”

THE NIGHT BOOK, by Charlotte Grimshaw (Vintage, $36.99); THE HUT BUILDER, by Laurence Fearnley (Penguin, $40); THEIR FACES WERE SHINING, by Tim Wilson (VUP, $30); NEW ZEALAND POST BOOK AWARDS, announced July 27.
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