Book of the Week: Charlotte Grimshaw’s new masterly novel

“Tyrants around the dinner table, fake news inside our heads”: Charlotte Graham-McLay celebrates the new novel by Auckland writer Charlotte Grimshaw.

When I was a kid and nicked books from my parents’ bedroom because I’d run out of my own (the trick was to write down the page the bookmark was on, demolish the whole thing in a sitting, and get it back on the nightstand before they went to bed) the contrast between mum’s stash and dad’s was stark and seemingly irreconcilable. Dad’s were all psychological thrillers, hard-bitten American detectives with sex workers being graphically tortured and chopped into pieces. On Mum’s side were stories about middle-aged British ladies discovering sushi and orgasms. Somehow the former was less confusing so I always picked that and just fast-forwarded through the torture bits.

Charlotte Grimshaw can get you a book that does both. Her latest novel, Mazarine, sets off down parallel garden paths with her trademark control and self-assurance: Gone Girl suspense paired with middle-aged, female sexual awakening. At once domestic drama, psychological thriller – underscored with a buzzing note of menace about global terrorism and the surveillance state – and a sort of sensual coming-of-age tale, Grimshaw picks and chooses which tropes from each style to use and which to let lie. It’s a brilliant and disconcerting strategy.

Grimshaw takes a dysfunctional family drama that could easily play out around Auckland dining tables and cafes, but makes it richer, more clever, and more deranged, by weaving in dangers on a global scale. Frances, the fiction writer at the centre of Mazarine, has grown up with a manipulative narcissist of an adoptive mother, and a family who find endless ways to excuse the mother’s behaviour. The drummed-in belief that there is something “bad in your self” has had such a profound effect that Frances that she has become an anxious, fractured, closed-off woman. The only easy relationship she has is with her early-20s daughter, Maya, who at the start of the book has vanished in London, where she is living on an OE.

Along with Mazarine Libard – the French, lesbian mother of Maya’s boyfriend Joe – Frances travels to London to try to find their children. It turns out Maya and Joe may have come into contact with gangsters or terrorists. As Frances and Mazarine travel to Paris and Buenos Aires in search of the pair, something in Frances begins to stir, and she believes her real self, long crushed and buried by her awful childhood, is starting to take root.

“No one had ever talked to that inner person; I had not allowed it. That self was not fit for purpose, was not controlled and careful but was all raw nerves and longing,” Grimshaw writes.

Of course, being Charlotte Grimshaw, there are layers beneath that too. Frances’ quest for both her own identity and her daughter, is muddied by her fiction writer’s tendency to question the truth and reality of every part of her life – and even the people in it.

The book’s most compelling and grotesque relationship is between Frances and her adoptive mother, Inez – a woman who has always convinced Frances to believe awful things about herself, who once hit a dog with her car and got angry at the dog. Inez is a monstrous enough character that it’s clear she alone could be responsible for Frances’ fearful, repressed inner life. It’s a thrilling but hideous character study, somehow believable through Grimshaw’s fine drawing: Inez’s “careful new shirt, the coloured espadrilles; she was vulnerable and small and full of rage as a child.”

But Frankie also presents herself as an unreliable narrator, someone who believes she could be much less sane, much less good, and much less truthful, than she likely is. In a less deft writer’s hands, such unreliable voices often feel gimmicky, as though they are withholding truths to give a plot more suspense. “Am I right?” asks Frances, over and over again. But in Grimshaw’s hands, there was no end to the number of times I could watch Frances circling back, wondering whether this person or that was even real or not. Grimshaw builds a bleakness in Frances and her cousin, Aria’s, childhood that suggests something even worse than nasty Inez might have happened to both of them – but resists pulling the pin on saying so outright.

Similarly masterful is her restraint on how much psycho to put into the psychological thriller part of the tale. With Frances’ daughter, Maya, missing on the novel’s first page, a reader is primed to expect a major climax with a surprise twist towards the end of the book, but Grimshaw drops breadcrumbs from the start to let you know it’s not that kind of story. Every time I found myself wondering whether the “twist” in the tale would be this or that, Grimshaw has Frances wonder those exact same things – as though by having her narrator spell out all the possibilities for the story to follow, the author is removing the urge (particularly fed by modern-day blockbusters) to spend your time guessing the aha! moment before it arrives.

Instead, Mazarine is a slow, halting meditation on identity that is swept along, but never overwhelmed by, the racy backdrop of the missing kids. “If you can’t construct a life story, then you have no past, present and future,” Frances’ therapist tells her, and presenting Frances as following Ariadne’s thread, moving from point to point in search of what about her past and present are real, Grimshaw does what she does best: a deep, contradictory, vulnerable character who – despite her tendency to philosophise openly and convenient inability to remember faces – is somehow fully alive.

The story is always fleshed out by Grimshaw’s sensory and finely detailed sketches of people and place. In London, Frances is “looking into brown haze on the horizon, the distant city buildings shimmering in the hot air. The building site below me in Lamb’s Conduit Street gave off a steady vibration, rocking the ground.” Each new city is given an entirely different character.

Frances’ sexual awakening, when it comes, only throws more confusion into the mix: is her falling in love with a woman a sign that she has finally discovered her own truth and freedom? Or is it all just another mental trick of the light, a fiction writer’s attempt to draw a clear future for herself when one is not apparent?

As in her previous novels, Grimshaw traverses a range of political and social issues through the experiences of her characters – international relations and religious fanaticism instead of the domestic politics of earlier books. Grimshaw has an uncanny knack for predicting news stories in her fiction – she told an interviewer that she had written in her book Starlight Peninsula about a character studying pilots who crash on purpose before the Germanwings crash that killed 150 – and I would be curious to quiz her on when, in relation to 2016 US elections, she wrote some parts of Mazarine.

But whether her writing is prophetic or she’s just really quick on the draw at spinning it into her novels, the parallels between the politics of her characters’ personal lives and the politics playing out on a global scale is where Grimshaw’s genius lies. There is much justified love for the New Zealand political satire of her earlier novels, along with their familiar cast of recurring characters, but by flinging Mazarine’s cast onto the world stage, she forces them into confrontation with our current preoccupations: tyrants around the dinner table and in parliament, fake news inside our heads and out – trying to figure out who we should be in a world where truth and reality seem less certain than ever before.

Mazarine by Charlotte Grimshaw (Random House, $38) is available at Unity Books.


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