One Question Quiz
Cover of novel Victory Park with lights draped behind
(Image: Tina Tiller)

BooksOctober 10, 2020

Victory Park is the book you’ll want to give to the ones you love

Cover of novel Victory Park with lights draped behind
(Image: Tina Tiller)

Victory Park is the first novel from Mākaro Press since August 2019, when they put out a little book called Auē.

I remember what it felt like to finish Becky Manawatu’s Auē, which went on to win last year’s Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction. Electric. Elating. An in-my-bones knowing that this story mattered.

Victory Park feels that way, too. Another debut, by Wellington writer Rachel Kerr, it is an examination of privilege and blinkers and how we all trade in the currency of paying attention. How the all-day mathematics of poverty wears a person down. It is also funny, knowing, and joyous – a celebration of people who give a shit. You’ll want to give it to people you love. It’s about a single mother called Kara.

Here is the opening paragraph:

Kara liked the shared playground best at dusk, when she could smoke without being told off and Jayden had the run of the place. He called it “Kara time”. She had no idea why he was using her first name – maybe he was just copying the other kids she looked after – but it was their first time alone together all day. He made trips to bring her treasures, an enamel bottle cap and a silver gum wrapper, still powdered and minty.

Kara is a hero. Jayden is her good sweet kid. She has another good sweet kid, an older girl who has recently moved out. Just about everyone else in this book is a perfect arsehole. You will not get to the end without wanting to do a lot of punching.

The thing is that Kara cares. Everyone else just takes and takes big ugly slurps; they don’t see or don’t care that she’s already so brittle, so stretched. I was reading the book at a playground the other day and noticed the way an old plastic slide was breaking down in the sun, fracturing in thin cobwebs, even though the surface was still nice and smooth. Kara breaks like that, for ages, and it nearly kills her. Even then she can’t see it. She sees something else instead.

Rachel Kerr, of Island Bay and the IIML (Photo: James Guthrie)

Space is very important in this book. Rooms, and horizons, the way light falls. Kara lives poor and breathless in a small flat – awful word – with low ceilings and lots of Formica. She cares for other people’s children in her home during the week. In the evenings, after her son is asleep, she likes to perch out on the tiny fire escape. “She said she went out there to get some fresh air, but really she wanted to be able to see more than three metres to a wall.” Sometimes, she wears her dead husband’s spare motorbike helmet, “taking some comfort that her head was actually where his had been”. But mostly she just sits the helmet beside her, a void. (The accident, and the man himself, are tidied away off-camera.)

Kara’s world opens up, or rather blows up, when Bridget moves into the complex. Bridget has a son, too. And a mean ex, and T-shirts made of lovely expensive fabric, and paintings and sculptures and houses that are all getting reclaimed by the Serious Fraud Office. She latches hard onto her new neighbour, despite Kara’s bewilderment at the vast empty space between them. “How were you meant to sympathise over the lack of a boat?” Kara thinks to herself, when Bridget discovers hers has been seized.

There are two ominous threshold moments: Bridget hesitates before stepping into Kara’s flat, which is packed with kids and coated in dust, baking nicely in the morning sun. And when the women visit Bridget’s old house on the sly one day, Kara is stopped in her tracks by “a series of tall rooms opening into each other with light flooding in through high windows … The light flared and refracted with a passing cloud, literal light at the end of the tunnel.”

There is, too, an energising focus on the movement of the body through space. Bridget glides around in a pearly new Volvo and she is a champion diver, adept at calculating where she is in relation to springboards and pristine pool water. By contrast, in every scene Kara orients herself according to the kids and their needs. For her, any extraordinary movements must be calibrated: a bus ride equals two loaves of white bread. A few days on holiday (to look after Bridget) means a few days less pay. Can she manage to climb that hill, with her breathing the way it’s been lately? And so on. All of that with zero self-pity or martyrdom, somehow – rather, what Kara harbours is a perpetual astonishment that other people in her life are caring less than she does.

(How good are the IIML alum at writing poverty and inequality, by the way? Pip Adam, Breton Dukes, Eamonn Marra, now Kerr – and that’s just this year and off the top of my head.)

People talk about microaggressions. What Bridget does to Kara is like that but more detached, more arbitrary. Micro acts of negligence, maybe. Micromisses? It starts to feel like Bridget is mindlessly popping bubble wrap, flattening Kara’s world even further. There are a couple of huge terrible pops in there – one gave me nightmares – but broadly, that’s the arc of the book: pop, pop, POP, pop, POP, pop. A pushing-down, until all that’s left is bone grinding on bone.

Running alongside is Kara’s godawful cough, which keeps getting worse and which she has no time or money to think about. A cough carries a particular existential foreboding at this point, of course; I’m sure Covid heightened my reaction to the narrative, an anxious drum that made everything else barrel past faster. By the three-quarter mark, I wanted to blow through each small exquisite scene to reach the finish, so I could be sure that Kara makes it there too. Like Auē, it became increasingly hard to slow down and read properly.

The launch of Auē, with Becky (left) and publisher Mary McCallum (roaring). (Photo: Penny Walker)

But then there was the writing. Here Kara is hitching across the country with two kids in tow. Not her fault, by the way – she’s forever just cleaning up the mess:

The smell of wet tarmac caught in her nostrils. Kara didn’t have her usual cough, but she wasn’t getting enough air in her lungs. The road swam, and then righted itself. Was the glittery feeling about being on the road, on an adventure, or was she losing her grip?

The glittery feeling. From our shattered heroine. How good is that, eh? Other gorgeous moments: “His anxiety thrummed and they all paused to note it, the moment stretching on and on, pylons alongside the Desert Road.” Or, in an instant of pleasant surprise: “She had a sense of having tripped over herself, like when you expected a step to be there and it wasn’t.”

It’s a heady combination – that beauty and pace – but there’s also something else to Victory Park, a truth that sticks in the mind. You come away with a sort of map, a spectrum, of who gives and who takes, and why. You come away thinking about where you fit in. Knowing that it matters, and that what also matters is whether you’re sliding forward or back.

You see that for Kara, and for overburdened women everywhere – it’s always women – it’s not just about simply “learning to say no”. The people around us also need to stop asking.

There’s a special place reserved for the anger and entitlement of men: see Martin, Bridget’s ex, who hits on Kara aggressively as soon as he clocks her loneliness. But there’s also the callousness of women, and not just Bridget. Jo, the mother of the kids Kara cares for, treats her like a childcare vending machine: many of their interactions rang as clear and cringey as those in Kiley Reid’s Booker-longlisted study of race and class and childcare, Such a Fun Age.

The final insult is a cameo from a clueless boomer couple who immediately made me think of that pair from the Stuff article (you know, the ones who feel financially up against it now that they’ve only got two houses). The two of them barge into Kara’s flat, peppering her with questions and requests and their own hard-luck story, choosing not to see that she’s the one who needs help. Well, choosing not to help, in any case. Because they do see it, and that’s what stings.

Oh, they’re sympathetic. The woman anyway. But what Kerr pushes home here, with immense restraint but also a quiet and sharpened rage, is that sympathy sucks. It’s lazy, a doddle, it requires nothing. Sympathy is just feeling sorry for someone else. Blah. Empathy is a step up, kind of: it’s the ability to imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes. But we tend to feel most empathetic towards people we already feel close to. Empathy is no use for crossing the spaces between.

Compassion is the good stuff. Compassion is where you feel empathy and then you do something about it. You act. Lest we lose all faith in humanity, Kerr shows us flashes of this throughout the book: the woman who runs the local food bank; the woman who owns a backpackers and lets Kara and the kids stay a night on tick – and makes them feel welcome. But these encounters are sweet and few. It’s Kara who’s the torch, who’s so lit up with compassion there’s no room for anything else. It’s simply what she does all day every day, without thinking about it, and it’s what she deserves to receive, and when she starts to get it the relief judders across the pages, like a great heavy injustice is creaking back into balance.

This is a novel that feels important. It feels solid and good and clever and warm; like it was written by someone naturally kind and unnaturally astute. I don’t keep many books in this job, but Victory Park I’m hanging on to. I already want to read it again. And Kara? Well. I’ve taken the kids off her hands and set her up with a fluffy robe and a cuppa, and huge big windows so she can watch the light.

Victory Park, by Rachel Kerr (Mākaro Press, $35) is available from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland

Keep going!