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.
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.
REVIEW – BRYCE EDWARDS
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.