Even the tiny cracking of an ice cube in a glass has menace in Charlotte Grimshaw's first novel for five years.
Charlotte Grimshaw's fourth novel, and her first for five years, takes its title from a powerful image established in the reader's mind in the opening chapter. The image is of a man and a child alone in a pool of lamplight in a house at night, him writing, her sitting quietly beside him, contented, undisturbed, "as though they were the only two alive in the city".
Simon and Karen Lampton are a wealthy Auckland couple - he's an obstetrician and gynaecologist - who, already with two children of their own, adopt a third. The child they take in, eight-year-old Elke, gets up most nights and prowls around the house. Simon often comes home late from work and settles down at a table to make his medical notes in a journal; Elke starts keeping him company, and a special bond is formed between them.
Just how special is something yet to be discovered by the reader, but the first chapter positively smokes with potential. We want to know, we must know what happens to Simon and Elke. The best of Grimshaw is on display here: her terse, tight, vigorous writing drives the story forward, and she catches superbly well the tensions of a family into which an outsider has come, testing parental love and sibling tolerance. A birth at the hospital is grippingly described. This is prose that does the business.
Almost straight away, however, the tension slackens: with the next chapter, we jump six years and Elke, her job as a plot catalyst apparently done, recedes into indistinct adolescence, leaving the story centred on Simon and a woman who comes into his life with an impact that shakes him out of his comfortable, cautious ways.
This is Roza, wife of National Party leader David Hallwright, whose election campaign gives Grimshaw rich scope for satirising right-wing politicians and their affluent followers. Indeed, there's great delight to be had in her powers of observation, which are, as the blurb correctly says, unflinching - especially when it comes to a certain class of Auckland women and what they wear. Trelise Cooper does not come out of this book looking good. Actually, Auckland doesn't come out of this book looking good.
There are some creaky plot manoeuvres and belaboured backstories, however, and for all its high-stepping style The Night Book starts to flag. The first, smoking-hot chapter works on its own as a short story, and the rest of the book feels at times like Usain Bolt trying to run a marathon. The Lamptons have short-story form, in fact: they pop in and out of Grimshaw's 2007 collection Opportunity. She obviously liked them enough to take them on a run of their own, but these Jafas just can't stay the distance.
There is simply too much going on in this novel. Seeking to show us two lives coming apart at the seams, Grimshaw works hard at generating a sense of risk and menace in the world around Simon and Roza. The trouble is, everything sooner or later has menace, even the tiny cracking of an ice cube in a glass. The weather is almost constantly menacing. Storm clouds brood, wind rips and rattles. Leaves skitter, shadows jitter. The only thing not menacing is the author's irritating fondness for fish tanks, which are (all too) clearly meant to have Major Metaphorical Significance.
In two senses, the book lives up to its title: most of the serious action occurs at night, and what gets gradually revealed is, if you like, the night sides of Simon and Roza, the darker impulses and secrets lurking under the shrubbery of their sunlit lives. But nothing after the first chapter matches the taut promise of the original "night book" image. There is much to be enjoyed in this novel, because Grimshaw is such a good writer, but it feels in the end like a lost opportunity.
THE NIGHT BOOK,
by Charlotte Grimshaw (Vintage, $36.99), released May 7.