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BooksMay 4, 2017

Book of the Week: Damien Wilkins writes like a girl


Linda Burgess reviews the latest novel by the prolific Damien Wilkins. Note: the headline was her idea.


Any Wellingtonian reading Lifting has to work hard not to see Cutty’s as Kirkcaldie and Stains. Well, it is, isn’t it? A large department store in Wellington, with a piano, and a top-hatted doorman, going through hard times, finally closing, the last weeks – depleting stock, sad-faced staff – a small almost domestic tragedy playing out on Wellington’s optimistically nicknamed Golden Mile. Few were unaffected by it. For those of us who love department stores, and remember how significant that one used to be (first bra, followed by cream bun with mother in the tea rooms, as Wilkins correctly reports; special windows at Christmas) it felt like visiting a joyless hospice over those last weeks. I still have a strange sense of shame that I bought so many good white cotton duvet covers in the last week. I’d gambled and waited. At half price I pounced.

I was in the shop the day the staff heard who was to keep their jobs. The nice man on the second floor who had served me often, told me they weren’t at liberty to discuss it. But that he was luckier than some. In the DomPost it was announced – a muted fanfare; a look at us, we know tradition, we’re not Aussie peasants – that David Jones, the new owner, was going to keep the doorman on. There was no mention of whether the doorman was actually twins, as in Wilkins’ version. Potty-mouthed pornography loving twins, as in Wilkins’ version. The ones who are currently suing IIML, in my version.

Neville Wellbourn, famous Kirk’s doorman (Image: RNZ)

And no one – not even in the fictionalised version – mentioned whether the staff who were kept on were paid during the months that the store was receiving its refurbishment. It was rumoured the shop was to be reborn as smart and glamorous. I had months to imagine it like the one I loved in Copenhagen; pale wood and perfect stacks of downy duvets. And then there it was, a marginally shinier version of Farmers, across the road in both reality and in fiction. The part of me that bought the cheap bedlinen hoped they’d put in an escalator. They did.

The blend of fact and fiction did interrupt the book for me. It just did. Wilkins had clearly done his homework – a very useful history of the store was published a few years back. After a brief mucking around on google, my desire to check facts faded. Who cares whether there really was a tuatara in Kirks? There was one in Cutty’s. And that the pianists kept playing in Cutty’s till the end, whereas in Kirks they went years ago. (“That’s a shame,” I said to the woman in Shoes, up till then right beside the piano. “We’re so pleased,” she said. “All day every day…”) It’s fiction, I told myself. It’s just a story.

The story is about the closing of a fine old shop and the disruption to the lives of those who work in it and shop in it, but mostly it’s about Amy, an instore detective. Wilkins has definitely done his work here and passes out some quite handy hints if you’re considering a future as a shoplifter. Pinch the book from a store near you! Some of the best stories in the book come, I suspect, from Wilkins’ research on the topic, and he found them too good to leave out. Amy’s discussions with shoplifters she apprehends are some of the book’s best dialogue. Wilkins’ dialogue has a pleasing ease and he’s magnificent at character vignettes.

The point of view is consistently Amy’s and this carefully structured novel – so carefully structured in fact that you can almost see its flow-chart – takes you back and forward between her past as both an activist and an ambulance driver, to her very recent past as she works as a store detective in the shop that is closing down, and also – slightly disconcertingly – into the present where she’s being interviewed by the police. I assume we’re meant to wonder why she is, but quite frankly I didn’t care. I was perfectly happy to wait to find out, and when I did, I still didn’t particularly care. Books need an end, and books need some things explained, but in this book for me that wasn’t the point. The other thing I didn’t particularly care about was Amy’s brief spell as an activist. Although it was nicely observed, going with Amy to Martinborough on an animal rights mission did feel a bit like how it feels to have the Green Party as a friend on Facebook.

Kirk’s interior (Image: NZ Fashion Museum)

What I did care about was Amy’s family relationships. Wilkins is a master when it comes to describing how it feels to be – in particular – a daughter and a sister. He’s good at the wife and mother bit too, but not as good. He has the lightest of touches. Amy’s partner Steve is away a lot of the time, having a job that sees him take to the road, so we don’t get to know him particularly well. We don’t need to, not when Wilkins can create small perfect scenes that pack a light but brutal punch: “The box of tissues they kept beside the phone was empty. Why didn’t Steve put the empty box in the recycling? She realised how much she was looking forward to the baby growing up into a child so that the blame for the small things around the house could be shared. She was tired of her and Steve taking all the blame.”

Amy has two rather frightening sisters – “with her sisters there was always the over-familiarity of blood but none of its compensating softness.” One of Wilkins’ delectable little scenes has Amy and Rebecca having a coffee in Cutty’s, breaking staff rules. Everything is perfect about this encounter, from Rebecca’s enviable fingernails to the gently vicious underlying competitiveness of their relationship. Meanwhile, Amy is aching to get back to work: in its closing stages, Cutty’s clearly feels more like family than her sister does.

Damien Wilkins, a man who writes women well (Image: Grant Maiden)

Wilkins has done degenerating aged parents before (in his 2016 novel, Dad Art) but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have the right to do it again – not when he does it so well. I loved Amy’s mother and all the things that go with the terrifying responsibility of having to hold the hand that once held yours. Three sisters, one mother, that constant subtext – who’s looking after her the most? Who’s burdening her the most? Is that baby that Amy has now presented her with, a gift and a joy or just another burden?

It was fun searching for Kirks in this novel, and an awful reminder that what replaced it pretty much sucks. I tried to buy a teddy bear there for our family’s new baby and they all had ‘David Jones’ embroidered on the foot. It’s a sad possibility that the mall has killed the department store, and that girls go to Dress$mart for their first bra, followed by some fries at Macdonald’s. But the real joy in Lifting is not the depiction of the demise of a once grand store, but the deft depiction of family relationships. Quite frankly I wouldn’t care if Wilkins never thought up a plot again. I could spend days happily reading his brilliant observations on what makes families such complicated things. At this, the man comes pretty close to being a genius.

Lifting by Damien Wilkins (Victoria University Press, $30) is available at Unity Books.

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