Many authors start afresh each time. Charlotte Grimshaw is not afraid to revisit. Themes, characters, situations. Unsuitable obsessions, reckless affairs, critical failures in judgment. Soon reunites us with people from The Night Book, some of whom wandered through earlier books – but adds to the cast, and swims more deeply in political currents and such as philosophical rips the notion of free will: how much are we in control of our actions? David Hallwright, the National Party politician of The Night Book, is now prime minister. He, a nouveau riche sentence-garbling money-lover, and Simon Lampton, an obstetrician and gynaecologist who also came from nothing, are close friends, despite Simon’s determined disinterest in anything political. Simon’s wife, Karen, has drawn closer to Roza, the PM’s wife, since the Lamptons’ adopted daughter, Elke, has been revealed to be her child.
The couples and their children, along with the lock-’em-up police minister, a far-right party bigwig known simply as the Cock, are all playing happy (tipsy) families over the hottest days of summer at the PM’s massive beachfront compound at Rotokauri, somewhere north of Auckland. Busy around them are a team of police guards, helpers and personal trainers called Ray, Troy, Shaun and Chad (the novel playfully confuses these mono syllables) – and the Polynesian nanny who tries to keep spotless the skin, and soul, of the Hallwright’s youngest, Johnny. The house seethes with tensions – political, familial, sexual. Simon’s left-wing academic brother, Ford, arrives part way through to stir the pot. Simon must leave this strange idyll of sand, sun and swimming for occasional drives back to his Auckland practice. And it’s on one of these trips – in this novel we see the world largely from his perspective, now angrier, more on edge – that he strikes trouble, after a young writer calls about an affair Simon had, a spiralling secret that threatens to both ruin his life and tarnish the PM.
Grimshaw’s fictional world, full of weather, nature, animals, is created through precise, poetic description. Light is “hurtingly bright”, the moon “like a button made of bone”, the tui “our woodland Cacofonix”. Those creatures – seagulls, weta, eels, ponies, penguins – serve as a kind of psychical menagerie. Says Karen to Simon: “The world is more animal than you think.” Perhaps there is too much sometimes. Roza tells Johnny a distracting story about a fierce dwarf called Soon – a grown-up, allusive tale of which Simon quickly tires. EM Forster’s Howards End, which interrogates class, affairs and interior lives, is discussed.
In the space of a few lines, Simon sees both a shooting star and a satellite. There are plot conveniences (surely a GP who earns $1 million a year would pay for a locum?) and familiar types (although none as cipher-like as the rich wife in John Lanchester’s Capital). Generally, Grimshaw anticipates these grumps. The dwarf and Forster appear only sporadically and the busy, unpredictable plot gives it almost the pace of a thriller. Grimshaw has said she likes the idea of fiction as mirror. In the absence of public intellectuals and given the sputtering light of local journalism, we increasingly look to our novelists and poets to show us things we can’t always see. To my mind, David and his chums are not flat-out evil; they just slip easily into expediency and cynicism, favouring power over principle. In one of several late epiphanies, Simon sees them as “grotesque, venal, ugly”. The novel asks: if the reflection of unmoored ethics is accurate, do we side with Simon, Ford or the wives banging on in their fake accents about bludger baby machines? The story might not end here. The last page suggests a doozy of a new beginning. I look forward to it.
SOON, by Charlotte Grimshaw (Vintage, $37.99).
Mark Broatch is a writer and journalist.