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Iceland by Dominic Hoey – book review

Dominic Hoey. Photo/Paul Taylor

A first novel set in inner-city Auckland features powerfully plausible characters.

The debut novel from Dominic Hoey is a grim portrayal of star-crossed, drug-addled lovers set against the gentrification of central Auckland. Our empathy for the lead characters is tested as we watch them repeatedly make poor choices, and there isn’t much hope to cling to as the narrative surges forward in a series of tragic events.

But if our empathy wavers, our belief in the characters does not: they are familiar to anyone of Hoey’s generation, and the dual-first-person narrative lets us see the world through the eyes of each in turn.

Hamish – with his inability to express himself, his destructive self-sabotaging patterns, his refusal to maximise his own gifts – represents a repressed Kiwi male with limited life options that many of us will recognise.

Zlarta, the hopeful chanteuse in a dead-end job, cannot for the most part see her errors of judgment. She reminds us of that friend who, in spite of all she has going for her, can’t quite make healthy decisions.

The challenges they face also feel very close to home: the inefficiency and dehumanising nature of Winz; the office job where if you pretend to be invisible you almost really are; trying to raise your head above the whirlpool of addiction.

Desperately searching for self-worth while travelling the impossible road they must traverse to have even a modicum of success, most New Zealand artists and musicians end up slipping through the cracks or falling by the wayside. Iceland is their story.

The author’s intimate knowledge of (and obvious attachment to) the geography paints a desolate landscape. It flicks through Karangahape Rd, Grey Lynn and other fast-changing Auckland suburbs reminding us of the social cost of gentrification.

Our characters search for hope and meaning through art while working jobs they don’t care for with people who don’t care for them as the city changes around them.

Hoey has a remarkable ability to turn a phrase and his switches between poetry and prose mostly work well. “When I see this combination of inexperience and ignorance face to face, I can’t help falling in love with a life that never existed, seduced by nostalgia’s fragmented beauty.” Such lines are scattered throughout the book, leaving the reader, like the main characters, in an almost constant state of melancholy.

It’s a compelling read, and perhaps because of my closeness to Hoey in both age and background, I couldn’t put it down, despite not really enjoying myself at all. The characters were too close to people I know, the story arcs too close to things that I – or those close to me – have experienced.

Yet this is an important book by a talented writer with an important voice forging a path for himself. Hopefully Iceland will find its way into the hands of young New Zealanders who will read about a world in which they themselves exist. In their hands, the tragedy of this story may become a cautionary tale of wasted youth and unfulfilled potential. 

ICELAND, by Dominic Hoey (Steele Roberts, $24.99)

Alex Behan is the host of Music 101 on RNZ National.

This article was first published in the July 8, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.