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The King and His Fayre Lady

Soon by Charlotte Grimshaw (Random House, $37.99)
Reviewed by Ruth Brassington

I haven’t read Charlotte Grimshaw until now. I know she lives in Auckland, has written “four critically acclaimed novels” called Provocation, Guilt, Foreign City and The Night Book, and has several awards for her writing. And I believe some of the characters in Soon have appeared before. But I came to this book fresh and found it a stand-alone read.

I like mystery novels, and this one is a bit old-fashioned in that it reminded me of both Iris Murdoch and C P Snow, the former because of the intricate interconnections between characters, and the latter because of the conversations between “important” men. For all that, it’s very much a New Zealand novel, and Grimshaw owns her depictions of dangerously vacuous women with strong, baseless views.

Some writers assemble their characters on an island or ship to enforce their togetherness, but Grimshaw gathers them at Prime Minister David Hallwright’s luxurious summer retreat. Most stay in the periphery of the swimming pool, while a few escape surveillance and risk the open sea. David uses his beautiful wife Roza as bait for the sycophants he keeps around him – a king of his little realm and his fayre lady, surrounded by slavering knights and slaves. Should the king beware the hovering of his mate Simon (Lancelot to his Arthur)? No, Simon is only a pawn in the PM’s game of playing with people’s lives, whether in the nation’s backyard or his own expensive patch of dirt.

So many villains packed together in one small space for the summer recession, all doing nothing while Rome burns. So much fun. So much alcohol. So many questions: could Simon really see a penguin surface when he was swimming, north of Auckland, in midsummer? Who are the true criminals? Those who actively harm, or those who harm by doing nothing?

As the descriptions of the landscape lose colour, the characters become more colourful. Grimshaw makes good use of both evocative language – “belly of an obese green wave”, rocks “iced with bird shit” – and of irony, showing rather than telling us about the characters’ real natures. She knows how to say a lot with few words, and knows the chasms between people’s thoughts, words and actions. Even the rich and powerful are exposed as puppets of their pasts.

Stories within stories, allegory and literary allusion are all packed into this mansion of a novel. Unpack it if you will; I found it worth the effort.