Fiction - hardcover; Jonathan Cape; 320 pages; 2013.
One of the great joys associated with ANZ Literature Month is discovering new-to-me writers from the antipodes. Charlotte Grimshaw is a lawyer-turned-writer from New Zealand with quite an extensive back catalogue to her name, but until Soon was published in the UK last year I had never heard of her.
Soon, which has reputedly been on the "bestseller list in New Zealand every week since publication there", turned out to be a real "find". It was such a delicious and powerful read that I've promptly ordered several more of Grimshaw's novels and will look forward to reading them in due course.
Not your average summer holiday
Soon takes a time-worn, almost clichéd setting — that of a summer holiday where two lots of people happily coexist until a new person enters the scene to disturb the equilibrium — but gives it several refreshing (and dark) twists.
The first is that this is no usual set of holidaymakers — it's the Prime Minister of New Zealand, David Hallwright, no less, and he's spending his summer in a three-storey house by the coast with the people he holds dearest: his trophy wife, Roza, and their five-year-old son, Johnnie; his best friend Simon Lampton, who is a doctor, Simon's wife Karen and their teenage children, Claire, Elke and Marcus; the Minister of Police, Ed Miles, and his wife Juliet; and his deputy, known as "The Cock", and his vacuous wife Sharon.
The second is that there is a bit of a power play going on — and not in the way you might suspect. Although David and Simon are friends ("What I like about you is that you're not political. Your mind's on other things. That's so refreshing to me"), they are connected in another, quite unusual, way:
When he married her, David's second wife Roza had been keeping a secret. It was not a sensational one, as secrets go: aged sixteen, she had given birth to a baby and adopted her out. Eight years later, after the adoption and a number of foster placings had failed, the girl, Elke, had been adopted by Dr Simon Lampton and his wife Karen. In the following years, the Lamptons had come to love Elke as their own. But just before David Hallwright had been elected Prime Minister, Roza had located the child, and had introduced herself to the Lamptons (and revealed herself to David) as the birth mother.
The two mothers are now best friends — or so everyone thinks — and the two families have become close because of their shared love for Elke, who has grown into a rather beautiful, self-confident young woman. But Elke is now preparing to leave home for the first time to go to university and Karen is anxious that she will be lost to them forever. It doesn't help that the Hallwrights are pushing Elke to come and live with them.
So before the events of the novel really get underway, Grimshaw has introduced a simmering tension between these two supposedly close families. But that's just the half of it.
Additionally, there are two pivotal moments in this book that raise the tension — and the stakes — even higher.
Simon receives an unexpected phone call from a journalist researching the disappearance of a Greek-Maori woman called Mereana Kostas, the same woman that Simon once had a secret affair with. And then Simon's older brother Ford turns up to disturb the relative peace and quiet of the holidaymakers: he's vehemently opposed to the right-wing Government and isn't afraid to speak his mind about the less than fair policies it has adopted.
Things really come to a head when a crime is committed, but to say any more would give the game away...
A tense read
Soon, if you haven't guessed already, is a novel brimming with all kinds of anxieties and strains. This is mirrored in the relations between the characters, which are all very complicated and messy. There's an interesting sub-plot between Simon and Roza, which revolves around whether they will act on their sexual attraction to one another, and another between Simon and the journalist as to whether his affair will be exposed to the world.
It's testament to Grimshaw's skill as a writer that she makes the reader want to keep turning the pages despite most of these characters, perhaps with the exception of Simon, being hugely unlikable. (Think The Slap but set in New Zealand.) The way in which she juggles multiple storylines between this mish-mash of characters is superb, too, so that as a reader I was constantly surprised by the unfolding of events.
Unfortunately, there was one element that I think didn't work. This involves Roza narrating a rather menacing story to Johnnie about a badly behaved character called Soon. This has uncanny parallels to events happening in the real world, but I felt this merely got in the way of the rest of the narrative. That's a minor quibble, however.
Politics in action
Perhaps the thing I liked most about this exhilarating novel (and exhilarating is exactly the right word to describe it because it often left me feeling breathless and on edge) is the glimpse it provides, not only of modern New Zealand society, in which the gap between rich and poor has widened, but the people in power who have helped create it.
And while I'm not a fan of political novels, per se, I found much to enjoy in this one. Despite there being an unwritten rule that house guests cannot talk politics (they're on holiday after all), there are several eye-opening conversations between the PM and his minsters about how his party should go about winning the next election that make you realise just how cynical, manipulative and immoral modern politicians have become.
Soon is a rather seductive novel, in all senses of the word. It draws you in to a closed, protected world and shows people acting at their most primal. It's a literary page-turner of the finest order, one that is deliciously dark, atmospheric and deeply unsettling. I won't forget it in a hurry.
I read this book as part of Australia & New Zealand Literature Month, which runs throughout May 2014. The idea is to simply celebrate and help promote literature from these two countries and to encourage others to do the same. Anyone can take part. All you need to do is read an ANZ book or two, post about ANZ literature on your own blog or simply engage in the conversation on this blog and on Twitter using the hashtag #ANZLitMonth. You can find out more here.