New Zealand Novels
What Happen Then, Mr Bones? by Charlotte
I have a bit of a soft spot for NZ author, Charlotte Randall,
ever since reading and loving The Curative. She is
just so damn clever. And she peppers her work with a lovely
macabre sense of humour.
Her latest novel continues with the clever and the macabre.
But the most attention grabbing thing about this novel is
that Randall tells the story backwards.We start at the beginning
with the Montague family in Petone, NZ in 2002 and we work
our way backwards, tracking the family through World War 2,
right back to London, the Plague and the Great Fire, arriving
all the way back at the beginning (or the end) where an original
member of the family, Anne Green, is hung on the gallows and
on the post mortem table makes a miraculous recovery from
The bizarre nature of medical science over the years is one
of Randall's themes and she fills the novel with some fascinating
information and quirky asides. All brilliantly written, in
typical Randall fashion.
I have to say it is a challenging novel. Randall delights
in challenging her reader and that isn't a bad thing if you
are ready to be challenged. I found the leaping backwards
progress, disorientating at times. It is hard to ever get
a closer understanding of any character, as no sooner are
they introduced as adults, but we romp back in time to find
them younger, and then even further back to where they have
never yet existed.
Her dazzling skill with words and ideas is on full display,
but I don't know whether that goes all the way in compensating
for a lack of interest or development in the characters. Clever
but somewhat emotionally empty. What Happen Then, Mr Bones?
is a hard novel to define - it is unusual, intellectually
brilliant, and challenging.
Love in Shades of Grey by Glynne MacLean
Moving on to another unusual New Zealand novel. Subtitled'
An Unusual Love Story'... and so it is. The novel opens with
the reader inside the main character, Claire's head - she
is lying ' in a vegetative state' in Edinburgh hospital. Unable
to move or communicate, she can only hear the nurses bustling
around her and can only feel the baby that is starting to
move inside her. From her hospital bed coma, Claire begins
to tell the story of her unusual love affair and how she came
to be bedridden. A talented composer, on the day that she
is commissioned to write an opera, she also learns that she
is dying . She determines to finish her opera in her limited
time left. Alone and desperate, she needs to earn enough money
to support herself and becomes part of the sex industry, and
is offered an unusual contract with a powerful and enigmatic
It is a story of courage and bravery as she
struggles with her declining health to see her opera through
to completion, and becomes increasingly intertwined in this
unusual relationship and binding contract with this man. A
gripping story involving the seedy prostitution world, murder,
music and creativity, and ill health and dying. But Love
in Shades of Grey is ultimately a positive and life affirming
Music from a Distant Room by Stephanie
Music from a Distant Room, the latest novel from last year's
Montana Fiction Prize winner, starts rather bleakly with a
funeral. Death seems to be a bit of a theme with these New
Zealand novels. A grim lot, we must be.
Initially set in Auckland in the 60's, Nola
is a young attractive dental nurse, and in a complicated series
of events, gives birth to a love child, Carl who is tragically
born blind. The funeral at the start of the book is his. Forty
years later, Carl had become a successful jazz musician in
the US and has died under mysterious circumstances. Nola is
telling the story of Carl's early life to his black American
lover, Tamara, who is also blind. Nola is eager to hear Tamara's
story of how Carl actually died .Tamara was present at the
death but being blind remained unaware of some important visual
clues. They hope by sharing their stories that they will help
solve the mystery of his life and death.
Johnson excels at creating a place and a time in her novels.
Auckland in the 60s is presented with nostalgia and fond detail.
Her visual descriptions are vivid and strong, perhaps enhanced
in this novel by the number of blind characters.
Some of the plot becomes a little contrived due to the mechanics
of the two characters telling the story, and as a result the
strength of the characters are diminished. The plot revolves
around an interesting and challenging premise, but is never
cohesive enough to truly hold this reader. I don't think this
is up to the standard of some of Johnson's past work : the
Montana winning Shag Incident or her earlier Belief,
but it does make for a satisfactory, if not compelling, read.
Rhythm by Rebekah Palmer.
No death in this novel, thank goodness. Rhythm is a quietly
gripping and disturbing story, very well told, of a complicated
love triangle that centres around Cara. Her husband Michael,
a psychotherapist is a steady and loving partner, but Cara
falls in love with the young and passionate Adrian, a drummer
in an avante garde percussion band. Each character takes turns
to narrate their story and to give their version of the entangled
relationships. The emotional complications of their marriage
and the growing love affair slowly develops until some surprising
truths are revealed at the end. What we thought we knew and
what they knew about themselves is revealed to be all deceit.
The twist at the end isn't totally unexpected, but Palmer
still manages to keep the reader questioning whether any of
the three characters are telling the complete truth in their
Rhythm is a simple and straight forward novel
and comes as a relief after reviewing some of the other novels
above. It is a surprisingly effective piece of writing - a
chilling observation about love and obsession and the inadequacy
of our understanding of ourselves and our partners.
It is just a little clever, pleasantly surprising
and very readable.
- Liz Fraser, July 2004
review of The Curative : review
of Within the Kiss
interview with Charlotte Randall
in Shades of Grey - Glynne MacLean website
Council author feature
Council author feature
review of The Shag Incident
the Critics Say.
What Happen Then,
Mr Bones by Charlotte Randall
-Susan Jacobs- 10 7 2004
of any of Randall's novels need to keep a dictionary handy
— she is a wordsmith, forging delectable phrases that
dazzle with stunningly original images. I particularly enjoyed
"the cloying redolence of the jam factory, yeasty halitosis
of the brewery, and the rancid transudations of the woollen
mills" — and this is only half the sentence. Such
is the sheer bravura of it, some of us can even (with a groan)
forgive such preposterous excesses as "to propitiate
the predatory coruscations of the peddler's teeth", mainly
because the narrative voice — in turn ironic, whimsical,
sly, bawdy, complicit — seems to groan with us. In short,
Randall gets away with it because she can. She is one of the
most original, intelligent and exciting voices in contemporary
New Zealand literature. Enter-tainingly erudite, abuzz with
febrile ideas, quirky characters and lush settings, this is
a remarkable story".
Music from a Distant Room - Stephanie Johnson
- Steve Scott - 14 June 2004
telling of these stories is compelling. They are strong, emotionally
focused, interleaving stories of love and loss. Johnson excels
at place, and how to live and move within it. She's meticulous
about its authenticity and atmosphere....Johnson is, after
all, the current holder of the Montana fiction prize, and
one wants, even expects, her to go on from strength to strength.
But there remains a lingering regret that the narrative fluency
of the writing takes second place to the strong emotional
pull of what is so nearly a very successful novel. "
- Steve Scott - 14 June 2004
an award-winning author, has gathered all the ingredients
of a good solid read. Unfortunately, she hasn't
been able to mix them to any workable consistency –
if the characters were teeth they'd be cheap dentures –
clumsy, ill-fitting and poorly constructed. And lest we forget
the plot, which is about as appetising as a pot of Nola's
mum's boiled cabbage – there's nothing to get your teeth
stuck into. Of course, you could just grit your teeth and
bear it. I think not. "
Rhythm - Rebekah Palmer
reviewer -13.07.2004- SIOBHAN HARVEY
this is an absorbing cast. They draw our attention, while
seamlessly moving the plot forward. And this is important,
because it enables Rhythm to be something out of the ordinary,
lulling us into a false sense of security, making us unaware
that appearance is deceptive, and that this isn't a story
of betrayal but a thriller building up to its crescendo. When
the denouement dawns — a secret revealed with careful
delay and precision by Palmer — we are struck by the
fact that we've just read a story that has a very different
tempo to the one we imagined. Awestruck and startled, we see
that Rhythm's pages of infidelity and confession are offset
by a medley of lies, betrayal and psychological torture. A
powerful opus, it moves us in uncomfortable and dramatic ways
to see the world in all its darkness as well as all its splendour."