There 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