Weekend Herald - Canvas
Fairy tales and all you could wish for at the Savoy
I WISH, I WISH by Zirk van den Berg (Cuba Press $25)
Namibian-born author Zirk van den Berg moved here in 1998 and set the local crime fiction scene alight with 2004’s Nobody Dies. “Is Zirk van den Berg the best thriller writer in New Zealand?” gushed one review at the time, while this paper named his book one of the five best crime novels of that year.
Since then van den Berg has published five books in South Africa, in a range of genres, with this latest winning a prestigious prize for Afrikaans literature last year and now getting an English translation. I Wish, I Wish is an unexpected delight — the second in the Cuba Press novella series. It’s a one-sitting read that’s part-stephen King, part-mitch Albom and a far remove from his crime fiction past.
What van den Berg gives us in this darkly comic tale is a moving and deeply felt meditation on marriage, family and mid-life ennui; he’s especially good at evoking the minutiae of a failing marriage.
The main protagonist, mortician Seb, has lost emotional contact with his family and pretty much checked out on life, a ghost going through the motions, his days spent making the dead look as they did in life, at a down-at-heel funeral home squeezed between a Discount Wheels and a Supercheap Auto.
“You had your job and you did it — no use wishing for other things. As far as possible, he concentrated on the present. He didn’t think about the past, it saddened him. He didn’t think about the future, it scared him.”
At one point his life is described as “a strip of underdeveloped, out-of-focus film, almost uniformly grey with vague shadows looming into frame”; his teenage kids ignore him while his wife of 20 years can barely hide her contempt.
Then a terminally ill boy and his mother visit the funeral home. The boy, Gabe (Gabriel — get it?) asks if he can have a look around, Seb even helps him into a coffin.
Something about the boy has captured his attention. Van den Berg treads a fine line here, keeping the story centred in the real world while skilfully introducing the fairy tale elements. And, for the most part, it works.
After meeting Gabe, Seb finds he has the power to make his wishes come true just by voicing them. He inadvertently uses two of the three wishes before realising the power he has, (one involves enriching his wife’s business partner with some gruelling consequences). As his life spirals out of control he has one wish left; what will he do with it?
While Seb does indulge in some low-level white collar crime and even a little midnight grave-robbing later in the novella, these interludes seem out of place, the only mis-step in a wonderfully controlled narrative, which deploys the classic fairy-tale “three wishes” set-up. Beautifully written, I Wish, I Wish might be just what we need right now — a hard-earned ode to hope. — Reviewed by Greg Fleming
THE SECRET LIFE OF THE SAVOY by Olivia Williams (Headline, $35)
Twelve pink roses and Dom Perignon. Marlene Dietrich knew they’d be in her suite whenever she checked in. Winston Churchill kept his own whisky behind the bar and Louis Armstrong’s room was stuffed with padding in advance, so he could practise the trumpet in bed.
Whatever your fancy, London’s sumptuous Savoy would furnish it. Occupying nearly an acre and enclosing a theatre, restaurant and Grill, the Savoy wasn’t merely a magnet for the wealthy and famous, the accomplished and notorious; it transformed the business of hospitality by inventing the modern luxury hotel.
With its own power and water supply, industrial laundry, coffee roastery, fishing trawler, wine cellar, orchestra, and cabaret, it was the first hotel to install electric lights, hot and cold running tap water, and lifts. It brought French dining to London, and the legendary chef Escoffier to its kitchen (“We are not drunks”, he announced on arrival, “we are cooks”).
It made stars of its managers and bartenders, turned its parties into news, and its scandals into gold: even a murder in one of its rooms only added to the Savoy’s allure. It dominated London from the late 1800s through the Swinging 60s and beyond.
In The Secret Life of the Savoy, Olivia Williams pays tribute to the hotel’s founding family, the littleknown D’oyly Cartes.
Each generation occupies a third of the book but the family’s true visionary was Richard. Stuttering along as a mid-range theatrical agent, he made his fortune as the impresario behind English light opera, producing the smash-hit Gilbert and Sullivan pairing and building his long-held dream, the Savoy Theatre, before the hotel.
D’oyly Carte captured a new audience with his operas — the wealthy Victorian middle class. Similarly, he exploited the burgeoning international tourism market with a destination hotel, combining English elegance with French sophistication and an American
dedication to all mod-cons. London had seen nothing like it, writes Williams. The city was a dump. According to Dame Nellie Melba: “The cooking was execrable, the carpets were dirty, the menu was medieval, the service an insult.” Richard knew the key would be razzle dazzle.
“D’oyly hoped to coax the rich in through the doors to do something new in Britain: eat, drink, dance, smoke and socialise in public, rather than at each other’s houses.”
D’oyly built his empire dizzyingly fast and his frantic energy aerates the story. Rupert takes the reins in 1901 and consolidates the business, navigating the war years. But he’s a tepid character and his daughter, Bridget, is remote. Devoted to the brand, fiercely private and apparently lonely, she dies without descendants in 1985 and the candle blows out.
For a book full of sugar towers and champagne, singers, stars and scandals, The Secret Life of the Savoy is a dense, often humourless read. Its research is faultless but you find yourself longing for a lighter touch.
Part of the problem is Williams’ affection for the D’oylys and unwillingness to dig deeper into dirt. Further, in the whirl of age-defining names (Monet, Wilde, Eisenhower, Dylan), there’s no time to enlarge glittering anecdotes. Marilyn Monroe is on the cover but appears only fleetingly inside. I’d rather read about the Savoy’s guests than its executive, but the book is as much about the wiring as the light-up facade.
Consequently, it’s like arriving in the ballroom too late for the party, with petals underfoot and cocktails gone warm in the glass. Who wouldn’t want to experience the Belle Epoque Savoy in full swing? But in its devotion to heavy detail, this book doesn’t quite take you there.