Book Review: The Bad Seed, by Charlotte Grimshaw

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_the_bad_seedThere is no denying that Charlotte Grimshaw deserves her place amongst the top New Zealand writers of fiction. Her writing is sparse: words are not wasted. Characters are deftly penned and well-defined: each one can be imagined, liked or disliked. Settings are vividly described often in poetic imagery: ‘Beside her the reflection of rain ran down the wall, a waterfall of silver and grey’.

The Bad Seed is a bind-up of The Night Book, first published in 2010 and Soon, published in 2012. This is being published to coincide with and promote the present television production, named The Bad Seed.

The setting of The Night Book is Auckland at the end of Helen Clark’s government, within the world of the rising National Party star – David Hallwright, a thinly-disguised John Key. Although real names are not used there is the obvious conclusion that the characters in both books are based on real people and real events. I imagine there would have been some discomfort and also pleasure among the wealthy and politically mobile in Auckland as they were shrewdly observed and described at the time of publication.

From the first few words of the opening sentence the plot leads the reader along effortlessly – this ability to instantly engage readers is an admirable feature of Charlotte Grimshaw’s writing.

The main protagonist is Simon Lampton, a wealthy gynaecologist and obstetrician. He and his politically-involved wife Karen are drawn into the top circle of David Hallwright, his second wife the beautiful and complex Roza, plus an assortment of political allies and cronies, none of whom are appealing. Simon is politically disinterested and is an astute observer of the machinations that finally bring David to power as the new Prime Minister. He and Karen learn that their adopted daughter, Elke, is actually Roza’s child. This discovery draws the Lamptons and the Hallwrights closer. On first reading of this I groaned as to me it seemed so contrived but as I read on I became once again engaged with how this was going to work out.

Simon foolishly gets involved in an affair with Mereana whose baby, earlier in the book, he had once delivered. He is aware of how dangerous his relationship with her is, and this is proven in the second book Soon.

The setting of Soon is four years on, during the Christmas Parliamentary recess at the Hallwright’s palatial holiday home at Rotokauri (read as Omaha Beach). The Lamptons and their children are long-term guests.  Simon and David have become close friends. David appreciates that Simon is not a sycophant nor does he seek favour. Roza and Karen are outwardly close as the ‘mothers’ of Elke, yet there is tension between them. As well, Roza and David now have a son, Johnnie. Roza narrates a story of her own invention to Johnnie using adult characters, and Johnnie becomes fixated, frequently demanding more of her tale.

Simon’s older brother Ford, a left-wing academic, is invited to stay. His acerbic observations about the ‘moral imbeciles’ Simon surrounds himself with challenges and infuriates him. Meanwhile, Simon’s affair with Mereana is discovered by Arthur Weeks, who tries to blackmail him, with disastrous consequences for both men.

Ethics, morality and the venality of political life are some of the many issues Grimshaw tackles in this compelling narrative all drawn together to a surprising conclusion. Or is there still another tale to tell?

I will be keen to see how both books are treated on television. The show begins on TV1 on Sunday, 14 April.

Reviewed by David Turner

The Bad Seed
by Charlotte Grimshaw
Published by Vintage
ISBN 9780143773764


WORD Christchurch: Politics of Fiction and I and I and I

WORD Christchurch: Politics of Fiction
WORD Christchurch: I and I and I – Charlotte Grimshaw

As elsewhere this weekend the political is explored as the personal and the ways in which we make sense of the world and seek to make it better were explored by Julie Hill in conversation with Brannavan Gnanalingam, Pip Adam and Rajorshi Chakraborti.

I left the sessions on Alt America and The House of Islam with nagging questions about the ways that the politics of the world and the fictions of fascist and radical propaganda are impacting on individuals, and the way that personal fear is driving people towards destructive ideologies. I’ll not go so far as to say I found the answer to all those questions in this session, but the work of the authors here felt like a powerful example of the way that humanity can respond with empathy and thoughtful care, even in the face of terror and misinformation.

There was an echo of the discussion between Kate De Goldi and Charlotte Grimshaw in I and I and I here of the exploration of the ideas of truth and self in Grimshaw’s Mazarine, which looked at the microcosm of the family, truthfulness, communication and power, alongside the macrocosm of the world of “fake news” and a rising tide of facism.

Grimshaw discussed the experience of growing up with a father who wrote, and seeing the events of their lives fictionalised over and over again, and through her protagonist (an author herself) raises the question of where the self resides and whether and how we exist. Grimshaw discussed how her personal creative process is anything but introspective, that she writes almost as if the stories are being told to her by aliens, though De Goldi’s responses showed the degree to which her work does inspire introspection, investigation and reflection in the reader on the existential matters at hand.

Rajorshi Chakraborti spoke of his interest in writing stories of the ‘existentially incompetent’ – Grimshaw’s work seems to move towards further layers of abstraction in terms of existence, while Chakraborti, Gnanalingam and Adam all spoke in their own way of using their fiction and indeed the political act of living day-to-day to take people who suffer disenfranchisement and oppression from the abstract and into the consciousness of those who engage with them. If fascism and extremism arrive out of the dehumanisation of Others, there was a sense in The Politics of Fiction of the way that we can tell stories and live our lives in a way that reminds us of each individual’s humanity and how precious that is.

Reviewed by Brett Johansen


AWF18: The Art of the Critic, with Charlotte Grimshaw, Alan Taylor and Diana Wichtel

AWF18: The Art of the Critic, with Charlotte Grimshaw, Alan Taylor and Diana Wichtel

To the chair, Dione Joseph, who began and ended this session in beautifully spoken te reo: ngā mihi nui ki a koe. It was a real pleasure to hear you.

The upper NZI room was packed out to hear Joseph chair a discussion with Diana Wichtel, Charlotte Grimshaw, and Alan Taylor about the art and practice of criticism. Wichtel is a long-time TV reviewer for The Listener who has just won a national book award; Grimshaw writes and reviews fiction; and Taylor is the editor of the Scottish Review of Books.

Wichtel said that a review has to be a thing in itself; something interesting to read. I was surprised how down she was on TV reviewing, given how good she is at it: ‘I don’t think anyone’s going to claim that a TV review is art’. (Taylor disagreed, as I would too.)

Grimshaw said she used to do real hatchet jobs on books she disliked: ‘A huge amount of what you read is absolute shit – I had this mad idea that people would be grateful to hear the truth’. She said that Kiwis refusing to review local literature for fear of backlash is
‘understandable but not laudable’.

There is always a danger with this kind of session that it will devolve into a moan fest about how the internet is killing ‘proper’ culture. It is undoubtedly true that there is less space for cultural criticism in the mainstream media and that reviewing as we have known it is in danger of becoming a dying art. I myself know very well how hard it is to earn any kind of living as a critic: Steve Braunias recently did a run-down at The Spinoff of how much book reviewers are paid in Aotearoa. (Spoiler: not much.)

The chair tried to keep things upbeat and future-focussed, but the person who ended up talking the most was Taylor. The list of things he dislikes includes but is not limited to:
Young people
Young people who write books
Books written by young people
Sentences that lack “cadence”
Books written by JK Rowling
The 44 Scotland Sreet novels (actually I agree with him on that one)
Genre novels
People who write genre novels
People who have opinions that have not been culturally sanctioned
John Bayley’s memoirs about Iris Murdoch
People who judge the Booker Prize these days (not like when Taylor did in the 90s)
People who enter the Booker Prize these days, especially Americans
The Booker Prize these days
Writers who persist in being alive when everyone knows all the “greats” are properly dead
Writers who put themselves forward instead of remaining in morally incorruptible seclusion
Writers who appear in literary festivals, thereby proving they have no goddam self-respect
People who make him feel old by persistently being younger than him

(In Taylor’s defence, I must note that when I went to chat to him afterwards he was perfectly nice to me, despite my (relative) youth and incurable habit of putting myself forward, and gave me some valuable career advice that I will be following. Kia ora Alan.)

At one point the chair pointed out that the panel comprised three women including a woman of colour and one man, and invited the panellists to reflect on diversity and privilege. Unfortunately this discussion didn’t go very far.

I would have been interested to hear more on that topic, and on the reality that, as so much of reviewing is paid either poorly or not at all, we are at risk of only hearing from people rich enough to be able to write for free, thus losing valuable perspectives. Joseph also asked the panellists how we can support the next generation of critics: I was poised to take detailed notes for my own career, but unfortunately, again, there was no real answer. In Scotland they have a mentoring programme for young critics that sounds wonderful. If anyone from Creative New Zealand is reading: let’s talk.

I got up at the end and asked the panel to recommend their favourite critics to read. Here is the list for your reading pleasure: Andy O’Hagan, Ali Smith, James Wood, Anthony Lane, Elizabeth Hardwick, Clive James, AA Gill, Grace Dent, Nancy Banks-Smith, and The War Against Cliché by Martin Amis. I’d like to end by echoing Taylor’s remark: readers have power. If you’d like to see more and better quality reviewing in our media, get in touch with the editors and tell them so.

And if anyone would like to review my review of the reviewers, I’m all ears. Kia kaha.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Other events that participants are in:

Sun, 20 May 2018 4:30pm – 5:30pm
ASB Theatre
Charlotte Grimshaw is in:
Sun, 20 May 2018 1:30pm – 2:20pm

Limelight Theatre

Alan Taylor is in:
Dear Muriel
Sunday, 20 May 2018 3:00pm – 4:00pm
Lower NZI Room, Aotea Centre

Book Review: Mazarine, by Charlotte Grimshaw

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_mazarine.jpgWhen Frances Sinclair loses contact with her daughter Maya, travelling in Europe with her boyfriend Joe, the Auckland writer begins to feel alarmed as, ‘It was unusual. My girl had always kept in touch’.

But when she came home to find her ex-partner Nick inside her townhouse and an assault takes place, she borrows her neighbour’s car and drives away. ‘The only idea I had was to get out of town, to go south and find a nice motel where I could decide what to do next.’

Award winning author Charlotte Grimshaw is a wonderful descriptive writer and her use of short and long sentences intensifies her writing. ‘For half an hour, the downpour slowed and there was a last showing of watery evening light, then the squalls intensified, and huge rain roared on the corrugated iron roof. Still I lay on the sofa, not moving.’

Grimshaw takes the reader on a road trip to the Waikato where Frances meets Joe’s Mum Mazarine and they share their family concerns and Frances makes a decision to fly to London. ‘I’m going to tell everyone I’m doing research for a book. And when I find the kids, that’s what I’ll do, I’ll make a start on a novel set in London and Paris.’

Following the narrative thread left by her daughter, Frances travels through cities touched by terrorism and surveillance, joined at times by Mazarine, and was it just in her imagination that she sighted Nick around London?

This is a complex read in which the author touches on many modern issues, bringing them together in a gripping novel which has enough mystery to keep the reader guessing until the end.

I enjoyed this book and anyone who enjoys reading about modern family life, and taking a deeper look inside oneself will find this a rewarding read. ‘Two selves. One understood: the situation had changed and Mazarine’s reaction was rational, there was no reason for us to stick together, after all we had just as much chance of finding our children if we separated. This self processed : words, reasons, solutions. The other self didn’t understand and wouldn’t be calmed or soothed, this other self cried out and smashed its own face and beat its hands against-.’

Even the cover of this book is a joy, the beautiful design by Kate Barraclough is fresh and original. Mazarine explains in the book, ‘A Mazarine Blue is a kind of butterfly….. …..Actually, Frances, the male of the species is deep blue, but the female Mazarine is brown, which is kind of confusing’.

Charlotte Grimshaw is based in Auckland where she writes a monthly column in Metro magazine which won her a Qantas Media Award. She has written a number of novels and short stories which are featured in the back of this book alongside three pages of reviews.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

by Charlotte Grimshaw
Published by Penguin Random House NZ
ISBN 9780143771821


Email digest: Monday, 19 August 2013

Book reviews
Book Review: The Meeting Place. Māori and Pākehā Encounters 1642-1840

Book Review: The Lifeguard: Poems 2008-2013, by Ian Wedde

Author interviews
Damien Wilkins on his new job, and exciting new book ‘Max Gate’

Sarah Laing’s speaking at the National Library on Thursday!  Get primed by listening to her on RNZ

Eleanor Catton will feature at an Australia / NZ Literary BBQ next Thursday in London

Lloyd Jones’ memoir A History of Silence releases this Friday. Join @nzlisteners Guy Somerset for a Q&A with Lloyd

Crisis and creative opportunities in post-quake Christchurch

Sarah Laing, Paula Green, Stephanie Johnson & Charlotte Grimshaw talk at Old Government House this Wednesday

Book News
Despite appearances in cyberspace, the Booksellers NZ office is closed today due to the Friday

Crime writing fan? Go vote for your favorite short story in Bloody Scotland’s competition!

The Commonwealth Writers’ Prize has re-focused its 2014 prizes to concentrate on the Short Story. It will no longer offer the Book Prize.

The Luminaries is now available as an ebook – click on the mebook button on the page.

Margo Lanagan has won the CBCA Older Readers book of the year for her book Sea Hearts 

Awards News
Have you read #nzpba finalist The Search for Anne Perry by Joanna Drayton? Here’s your chance to win a copy!

Meet the freshly-minted winners of the #nzpba the very next day

From around the internet
17 Problems Only Book Lovers Will Understand

Educators and parents, here’s a handy list of books categorized by what writing skill they teach

16 bookstores to see before you die – step 1, take a really amazing old building

Ah Buzzfeed, you do it again. Life advice from Black Books.

Book review: Soon by Charlotte Grimshaw

cv_soonThis book is in bookshops now.

If you are looking for a New Zealand novel to spend your NZ Book Month voucher on, here’s a good one.

Soon picks up the story of politician David Hallwright of Grimshaw’s The Night Book a couple of years down the track. Hallwright is now Prime Minister and is on summer holiday at his beachside compound north of Auckland with his posse of friends, family, and colleagues. The days are long and hot and you can almost smell the money oozing from the pages. This is how the wealthy and powerful holiday at the beach, from the personal trainers, tennis courts, and luxury yachts, to the cocktails served by the ever-hovering staff.

As in The Night Book, the focus of the story is on prominent obstetrician Simon Lampton and his friendship with the magnetic Hallwright family. The beautiful, but rather vacuous, Elke who was adopted by Simon and his wife Karen years earlier is the biological daughter of the Prime Minister’s wife; forever bonding the families in a fragile and silently competitive friendship. However, an encounter between Simon and a documentary filmmaker, Arthur Weeks, threatens to damage both the families’ friendship and the National Party’s public image.

When I reviewed The Night Book two years ago, I mentioned that the characters were “so intensely human and strangely familiar that, despite their many flaws, they remain surprisingly likeable”. Roza, Simon, Karen and David remain intensely human and very very flawed but the intervening years have hardened each of them.

Although Grimshaw has done another superb job of breathing life into her characters, I confess I struggled to find any of them at all likeable. These people are shallow, greedy, self-absorbed and bitter. Yet they are oddly compelling. It’s like watching the build-up to a car crash – you know things are headed to a collision yet you can’t look away. As a reader, I usually find that if I don’t like the characters, I can’t like the story. Soon has proved to be the exception to my “rule”: despite really not liking the characters, I still cared very much about discovering what happened to each of them.

One part of the book that I enjoyed less was the twisted fantasy story about Soon the warrior dwarf which was interspersed throughout the book as a game between Roza and her young son. Roza interrupts the book at semi-regular intervals to “make Soon talk” and weaves a weird allegorical tale about the bloodthirsty dwarf and his loyal court. Although clever, it was disruptive and strange.

There is no denying Grimshaw’s cleverness. She’s a fabulous writer and conjures up characters and scenes so vivid you can almost see the heat haze hovering over the deck and smell the sunscreen. Soon is a great summer read – even if summer is, unfortunately, over.

Reviewed by Tiffany Matsis

by Charlotte Grimshaw
Published by Random House
ISBN 9781869799991