Book Review: King Rich, by Joe Bennett

Available in bookshops nationwide.

Tcv_king_richhree small things have occurred in the past two weeks to bring Christchurch to the front of my thinking. Firstly, this week saw my first visit to Christchurch since the tragic earthquakes of 2010 and 2011. To be honest, although I have not had any need to go to Christchurch, I certainly have not gone out of my way to find a reason to go. Very simply, I have not wanted to see how this city that I have visited many times over the years, has been so destroyed both physically and emotionally. But a holiday on the West Coast required going through Christchurch to get there, and an overnight stay with friends who offered to take us on a tour of the city was far too good to turn down. Secondly, the latest North and South magazine has a very sobering article on the very slow progress being made in those five years to fix homes and businesses damaged/destroyed, with massive fingers pointing at both the insurance industry and the government. And lastly, I read this wonderful novel set in the days after the 2011 earthquake. What a gem.

This is the first work of fiction by well-known NZ writer and columnist Joe Bennett, who has lived in the Christchurch area for many years. His novel asks what would have happened to someone who actually managed to remain inside the cordoned off CBD disaster zone, living in the condemned multi-story hotel which also happened to be the tallest building in the city? For Richard, in his early sixties, life in recent years has taken a bad turn. Sick, probably malnourished, basically homeless, and an alcoholic to boot, the haven he finds in the deserted and leaning hotel, is really the only place he wants to be. Just think of all those mini bars! With no one to love, and no one to love him other than an abandoned dog which also finds its way into the building, Richard has little to live for. On the other side of the world in London, his daughter Annie, who has spent her whole life wondering what happened to her adored father after he left her and her mother, sees on TV the devastation wrought on her home town, and makes the long journey back to Christchurch to see if she can find him and maybe re-find herself.

It’s a simple story of love and hope, the kindness of others, the simple pleasures in life, set against a background of such devastation, loss and despair. Could it only be written by someone who has lived through all this themselves? Well, in this case, I think yes. Because the book absolutely sparkles with what Christchurch is all about. The writer captures the essence of the landscape, the garden city, the old wooden architecture, the solidness of the place, the spirit, resilience and stoicism of the residents that was apparent to the rest of the country and the world in the days, weeks and now years after. Joe Bennett is a marvellous writer, so visual – ‘The starlings are gangsters in flashy suits, strutting like hit men on the far edge of the sill, their sword-beaks jabbing at each other in perpetual squabble.’ This is just one of many, many sentences that I loved. It’s such an entertainment to read, even though the subject matter is not.

Both Richard and Annie, as the main characters, are very real people. Despite their flaws, as the reader you can’t help but relate to them, empathy oozing over the page. Noted NZ writer Dame Fiona Kidman reviewed this book for The Spinoff, and her main criticism is how Annie’s mother/Richard’s ex-wife is portrayed, and I agree with her. It is a very simplistic and one-dimensional view of a woman who was betrayed early on in her marriage and left with a young child to raise. The reader is not supposed to like her, she does not behave well. However, taking into consideration the circumstances of her marriage breakdown, I do think she deserves some compassion and sympathy. Dare I say it, if the book had been written by a woman the wife may have come across as a nicer person, with at least one redeeming quality.

Besides this small criticism, Annie’s search for her father, the history she unearths, and the people she meets who knew her father in his younger and better days is really quite heart-warming. Disasters like this always produce small but beautiful real life stories, and the best thing about the story of King Rich and his daughter Annie, is that it could so easily be true. I hope there is more fiction to come from Joe Bennett!

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

King Rich
by Joe Bennett
Published by HarperCollins NZ
ISBN 9781775540557

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