Re­views of Lift­ing by Damien Wilkins, The New Zealand Project by Max Har­ris, and Heloise by Mandy Hager.

Damien Wilkins avoids tra­di­tional tem­plates in a tale en­com­pass­ing moral choice, early moth­er­hood and the mys­tique of a grand re­tail in­sti­tu­tion.

Metro Magazine NZ - - Contents -

RE­VIEW — STEPH BURT Lift­ing Damien Wilkins (VUP, $30)

In 2015, Damien Wilkins took sab­bat­i­cal leave from his day job as di­rec­tor of Vic­to­ria Univer­sity’s In­ter­na­tional In­sti­tute of Mod­ern Let­ters. He wrote an en­tire novel — Dad Art — in just a few weeks. With time on his hands be­fore re­turn­ing to work, he started a sec­ond one, Lift­ing.

Read­ers might won­der whether pro­lifi­cacy comes at the cost of qual­ity. They need not fret. Lift­ing is Wilkins at his best — hon­est, vul­ner­a­ble char­ac­ters, un­forced hu­mour and a plot that de­mands a one­sit­ting read.

Amy is a store de­tec­tive in Cutty’s, New Zealand’s old­est de­part­ment store (based on Welling­ton’s Kirk­caldie & Stains). Amy’s stressed; she has a new baby and her mother is sick. She’s strug­gling, too, to rec­on­cile the ac­tivist prin­ci­ples of her youth with en­trap­ment of shoplifters in a tem­ple of high-end con­sumerism. Then comes the an­nounce­ment that Cutty’s is clos­ing.

Yes, there’s a lot go­ing on in Lift­ing — with­out even men­tion­ing the mys­tery at the heart of the story. In the hands of a less-gifted writer, the tale might have re­sem­bled the Kirks’ bar­gain bins on the first day of Sale Week. But Wilkins deftly con­trols the po­ten­tially chaotic nar­ra­tive, pac­ing it to al­low the reader mo­ments of re­flec­tion on moral choice and the so­cial hi­er­ar­chies in which we all par­tic­i­pate.

Max Gate, Wilkins’ sev­enth novel, proved that he could write con­vinc­ing fe­male char­ac­ters. Lift­ing re­veals a par­tic­u­larly star­tling em­pa­thy for the ex­haust­ing world of a first-time mother. No mansplain­ing here; we’re awash in breast milk and the drudgery of com­plet­ing small house­hold du­ties on zero sleep. Wilkins de­scribes these Sisyphean ac­tiv­i­ties in slow­mo­tion de­tail. Con­se­quently, our em­pa­thy for Amy is heart­felt and true.

Equally adroit is his com­plex ma­nip­u­la­tion of time past and present: not since Mau­rice Gee’s Plumb tril­ogy have I seen this ex­e­cuted so seam­lessly. Wilkins con­stantly flicks the ac­tion of the story back­ward and for­ward, eschew­ing sec­tion breaks and other usual mark­ers of time-change in favour of faith in reader at­ten­tion and con­cen­tra­tion. As the cover blurb says, the story be­gins at the end — with Amy be­ing in­ter­viewed by po­lice about a mys­tery yet to be dis­closed. Read­ers who re­mem­ber this, as they set­tle into the en­er­getic nar­ra­tive, will be re­warded with mas­ter­ful sto­ry­telling.

Lift­ing’s mys­tery — the rea­son Amy is be­fore the po­lice — is re­vealed only in the last pages of the book, and res­o­lu­tion is of­fered on Wilkins’ terms. A lessauda­cious writer might have been tempted by a more tra­di­tional tem­plate, dripfeed­ing clues and escalating ten­sion through­out the story.

In opt­ing for the un­ortho­dox, Wilkins re­minds us that this is Amy’s story, and that we have come to care about her very much. He also salutes, one fi­nal time, the en­dur­ing mys­tique of the grand de­part­ment store. Cutty’s might be clos­ing, but she will keep some of her se­crets to her­self, thank you very much.


The New Zealand Project by Max Har­ris (Brid­get Wil­liams Books, $39.99) I’ve been read­ing Max Har­ris’s man­i­festo for a new pol­i­tics in my newly adopted home of Welling­ton. And some­how the book feels like an in­tro­duc­tion to the lib­eral pol­i­tics of this city — it’s pro­gres­sive, but gen­er­ally not too rad­i­cal, and very coloured with what some might call “iden­tity pol­i­tics” or “so­cial lib­er­al­ism”.

Hence it will sit very well on the book­shelves of the lib­eral politi­cos here. It’d be a use­ful re­source for var­i­ous po­lit­i­cal-party ac­tivists, NGOs, aca­demics, and oth­ers who want to make the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem work bet­ter. And it’d be par­tic­u­larly ap­pre­ci­ated by those who be­lieve in the ur­gent need to “de­colonise” so­ci­ety and “check your priv­i­lege”.

Har­ris is also a Welling­to­nian, al­though he’s cur­rently on an Ox­ford Univer­sity schol­ar­ship in the UK, where he’s work­ing on a law PhD while also try­ing to help cre­ate a new way for­ward for pro­gres­sive pol­i­tics in New Zealand, es­pe­cially through this book.

In many ways, he suc­ceeds. His gen­eral cri­tique of the way that New Zealand pol­i­tics is bro­ken is use­ful. He points the fin­ger at politi­cians and par­ties that have be­come very

tech­no­cratic — fo­cused on de­tails and prag­ma­tism, rather than the big pic­ture. And so he calls for our pol­i­tics to be reac­quainted with vi­sion and ideas again.

Yet, in­stead of propos­ing that politi­cians and par­ties be more ide­o­log­i­cal and prin­ci­pled, he prefers to call for a greater use of “val­ues”. And he’s got his own ideas of what the new pro­gres­sive val­ues should be: “care, com­mu­nity, cre­ativ­ity”, and per­haps “love”. This is where the book be­comes some­what vague and re­turns to its Welling­ton-cen­tric tone. Af­ter all, don’t most politi­cians pro­fess to have such val­ues?

Har­ris also comes up with many use­ful ideas for re­form. Much of the book goes through the ma­jor po­lit­i­cal and so­cial chal­lenges in so­ci­ety and comes up with in­ter­est­ing so­lu­tions, rang­ing from the univer­sal ba­sic in­come to prison re­form.

Not much of this is nec­es­sar­ily new, but Har­ris does weave it to­gether in a co­her­ent way, with in­ter­est­ing ac­counts of his in­ter­views with var­i­ous ex­perts and ac­tivists. Yet this might also be seen as a ma­jor weak­ness in the book — it puts a fo­cus on ex­perts and elites — al­beit elites of a more lib­eral per­sua­sion.

This makes the book read like an “in­sider’s ac­count”, which will fit in well with a Welling­ton au­di­ence of politi­cos. And its cap­i­tal-city pro­gres­sive ethos is also seen in the un­der­ly­ing fo­cus through­out the book on eth­nic­ity and gen­der, to­gether with a con­tin­u­ous de­nounce­ment of ne­olib­er­al­ism.

Some­times it’s dif­fi­cult to see what Har­ris’s man­i­festo would look like in prac­tice. Or in­deed what sort of politi­cian he would see as best fit­ting his mould of a “val­ues-driven” politi­cian, or an ex­am­ple of some­one per­son­i­fy­ing the “pol­i­tics of love”.

But in a re­cent blog post, Har­ris made this clear — it’s for­mer Maori Party co-leader Tar­i­ana Turia. And in this ex­am­ple, we get a bet­ter sense of what The New Zealand Project is all about: pol­i­tics be­ing per­formed in new ways and with new faces, but ul­ti­mately not in any sort of new anti-Es­tab­lish­ment way that vot­ers seem to be turn­ing to in other parts of the world.

Ul­ti­mately, Har­ris’s im­por­tant book is about chang­ing how Welling­ton works, but mainly through re­plac­ing the old tired elite with a new lib­eral one.

RE­VIEW – CLAIRE MABEY Heloise Mandy Hager (Pen­guin, $38)

Once upon a time at Père Lachaise in Paris, af­ter

I’d kissed Os­car Wilde’s head­stone and vis­ited Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Tok­las, I wan­dered over to the spot on the map marked “Abe­lard and Heloise”, cu­ri­ous to see some­thing tan­gi­ble of the fa­mously mar­riage-scep­tic nun who had wed a monk. Their story curled into the history books I was read­ing at the time in search of the story of Heloise’s con­tem­po­rary, the Ger­man nun Hilde­gard of Bin­gen. With a tow­er­ing tomb, the lovers are com­mem­o­rated in Paris at scale, pitch­ing their im­por­tance among the grave­yard of per­son­al­i­ties at quite some height. The 900-year-old love af­fair of the 12th-cen­tury nun Heloise and her philoso­pher and the­olo­gian teacher Peter Abe­lard is one of history’s most pas­sion­ate and ro­man­tic true love sto­ries.

Mandy Hager has writ­ten the life story of Heloise as a novel and it is a tremen­dous achieve­ment. Trau­matic, hope­less, ten­der and hope­ful in the telling, the story weaves its way through the shift­ing pol­i­tics of state and church in medieval so­ci­ety. Ed­u­cated by bril­liant women and groomed by her un­cle to be­come an abbess, Heloise is al­ready well known for her strength of mind at the age of 21. Her en­counter with Abe­lard is near-im­me­di­ate, in­tense, and at times shock­ing. The pair spar and fire each other’s wits with one-on-one lessons and let­ter-writ­ing ex­er­cises and Hager’s metic­u­lous re­search and deft lay­er­ing of cir­cum­stance un­der­score the story with a con­stant hum of threat and in­trigue.

Sure, the cover of Heloise frames this bril­liant book in fa­mil­iar terms (“for­bid­den love in a hos­tile world”) and ev­ery­thing of the his­tor­i­cal ro­mance is cued by the aes­thetic: the beau­ti­ful young wo­man poised like the sub­ject of a da Vinci paint­ing, script from a medieval man­u­script over­laid on her bare neck. But in Heloise, Mandy Hager has de­liv­ered to us much more than the re-imag­in­ing of a fa­mous love story. Flick to the back of the book and you will find ap­pen­dices, with a list of his­tor­i­cal fig­ures and places, a list of main sources, a list of books from which the au­thor was given per­mis­sion to quote ex­tracts, and end­notes. Heloise is a body of work by a bril­liant writer who has picked through, dug out, put back to­gether and care­fully brushed off the in­tel­lec­tual and his­tor­i­cal in­tri­ca­cies of this fa­mous medieval re­la­tion­ship.

The achieve­ment is a trea­sure. The reader is given ac­cess to a 12th-cen­tury world in which the cen­tral char­ac­ters have been so care­fully brought to life.

This is the ro­mance I’ve wanted to read since see­ing the con­crete forms of Abe­lard and Heloise in a grave­yard in Paris and it’s the history I’ve wanted to be im­mersed in since dis­cov­er­ing that Heloise, in her own right, is a wo­man to in­spire ev­ery one of us to­day.#

Its cap­i­tal-city pro­gres­sive ethos is also seen in the un­der­ly­ing fo­cus through­out on eth­nic­ity and gen­der, to­gether with a con­tin­u­ous de­nounce­ment of ne­olib­er­al­ism.

ABOVE— Damien Wilkins re­veals his novel’s mys­tery only in its fi­nal pages.

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