A strange disappearance in Grimshawland: Charlotte Grimshaw's Mazarine reviewed

by Mark Broatch / 30 April, 2018
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Charlotte Grimshaw: spinning plot plates. Photo/Jane Ussher

Charlotte Grimshaw’s latest novel Mazarine is an absorbing, multi-layered mystery.

Frances Sinclair is an Auckland writer, of journalism, fiction, screenplays. She lives alone, her daughter Maya having gone to London with her boyfriend, Joe. Then Maya disappears, at least in the 21st-century sense of not staying in touch digitally. When a shady ex, Patrick, randomly appears in Frances’s house, she gets spooked and makes a hasty decision to find her daughter.

The Mazarine of the title of Charlotte Grimshaw’s new novel is Joe’s mother, whom Frances tries to track down to see if she can help. The action shifts to London and Paris, and to reveal any more would jeopardise the suspense.

Grimshaw’s novels always deliver tension, intrigue, drama. Her stories are contemporary, usually vividly set in Auckland or thereabouts and packed with plot.

Serious doesn’t mean po-faced, though. The book bristles with life and is full of sensations, humour, rippling interchanges and sudden poetry: “I … found my seat and settled in for the next round, the stunned hours, the dizzy curve of the Earth, dreams of Patrick and Maya.” It comments on society, not gauchely, but in passing glances and subtle asides. Grimshaw cares about the world we live in and asks us to care, too.

As in previous books, fragments of reality intrude to make up an alternative world we might call Grimshawland: Frances went to Menton in France as a child; Grimshaw’s father, CK Stead won the Katherine Mansfield fellowship to Menton in the 70s. A Herald interviewer is charmed by Frances’s dog and wonders about the dragonfly on the cover of her book. Alice Munro and David Foster Wallace are discussed. There’s the awful shadow of Trump, Madeleine McCann, even the cartoonist Bromhead. Characters in previous novels resembled John Key, John Campbell and Kim Dotcom.

It’s not just things verifiable: Grimshaw builds involving emotional worlds. Frances is lonely, feels unable to read people and frets about whether she’s losing her grip, and it’s to the author’s credit that we are never quite sure about that, either. Frances slowly finds her way, comes to unexpected realisations, perhaps discovers a new, real self.

It’s been a while since Grimshaw has headed overseas in her novels, and Mazarine, her ninth work of fiction, demonstrates that she knows England and its people well. Road trips always run the risk of turning into “holiday snaps” accounts – “and then she went there” – but the author is far too good for that.

Grimshaw’s earlier novels The Night Book and Soon were triumphs and would have been sitters for film or television adaptation in any other civilised country. For me, the central relationship in Mazarine intrigues but doesn’t fully convince, and Grimshaw has so many plot plates spinning – Maya, an encrypted USB drive, Frances’s bonkers family, the dodgy ex, Mazarine, a novel in progress, the threat of Islamic terrorism – that it’s no surprise a few wobble and the odd end is left untied or seems a little neat. But what a great film it would make, provided it could capture the book’s enjoyable swirl of interior and exterior and its many mysteries, not least Frances herself.

MAZARINE, by Charlotte Grimshaw (Vintage/Penguin Random House, $38)

This article was first published in the April 14, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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