Anna Rawhiti-Connell reviews the knockout debut novel by Rebecca K Reilly.
Reading and writing about Greta and Valdin feels like an act of radical self-acceptance. This is not something many people say about writing anything. Usually it’s a process plagued by doubt. Yet in this case, the only real cause for trepidation is that Reilly can see and hear cliché as if attuned to a frequency many of us would miss without narrowing our eyes or straining our ears.
“He’s a calm, gentle and thoughtful person. These adjectives sound like something I would write in an undergraduate exam after reading a short text about the friendship of Pierre and Emile or whatever.”
Reilly’s titular brother and sister narrators are painfully aware of their own foibles. Though the characters judge themselves harshly, there is a lightness and instant relatability in the way Reilly examines their anxieties, and in turn, our own. She skewers the serious business of compiling identity and gives you permission to do the same: a pressure-valve release.
“I have a strong interest in urban planning because I used to live in Germany.”
It’s a firm statement from Greta about a serious interest, but like many of the things we claim to care about so passionately these days, it’s also based on knowledge that’s been flimsily acquired. It is easy to know a little about a great many things. Greta is not an urban planner and you are not an expert in whatever it is you’ve decided is vitally important to care about today.
Greta and Valdin flick off deft observations about themselves throughout the book. After an evening of taking government career-aptitude tests that suggest she’s best suited to being an actor or a playwright, Greta decides it is time “for a cultural reset for me personally”. As someone who has also done this many times, I flinched and laughed.
Character dialogue and inner monologues about standing desks, late-stage capitalism, Ponsonby, Epsom and Pākehā who don’t sing: her lines are successfully cast and reeled in, fresh catch dangling, but they don’t ever feel cruel or unkind. You get the sense she’d like you to take them in, enjoy them, yes, but carry them heavily, no.
It would be easy to slip into sitcom-speak, and bill this novel as a story of a queer brother and queer sister navigating the highs and lows of love and life in the big city with a Russian-Māori-Catalonian family as the supporting cast. The canned laughter blurb doesn’t do it justice but setting, sexuality, ethnicity and family history are not unimportant here. Reilly has said that “maybe not lots of other people were writing books about eccentric queer Māori people living in Auckland Central who were essentially big nerds but still getting off with a lot of hot foreigners” and that “I think it would be nice if any queer person, person with OCD or any of the more nerd Māori felt somewhat represented in this book”.
She unpacks the experiences of having a mantle bestowed upon you by virtue of what is known and simple to assume. Valdin is asked to lead karakia at work because he is the “Māori one”. Greta deals with the foisted assumption she is bisexual because “it’s just very hard to convince anyone that wanting to look pretty doesn’t mean you want attention from men”.
The two share narration, alternating chapters, their initials signposting who is taking the lead. This is handy for the first 100 pages, especially as we are introduced to the supporting cast of family, friends, lovers and ex-lovers, a couple of whom share the same name. Reilly also includes a list of characters at the beginning of the book, a legend you can refer back to as various relationships and family secrets unfurl and intersect.
After a while Greta and Valdin’s voices and patterns of thought become familiar and the initials fade into the page. Valdin, anxious, and nursing a broken heart that sits so close to the surface you can almost see his aortic chamber constrict, has a tendency to spiral in anticipation of the most fleeting interactions. He analyses them in the aftermath too. After running into an old acquaintance, who used to inspire attempts from Valdin to hold fruit alluringly in front of him, he hides in a liquor store on Auckland’s Symonds Street until “the man from behind the counter comes to check I haven’t died”.
Both narrators are desperate to find love and both have unrequited loves. They wonder what they’re going to do with their lives and deal with the unnerving insecurity these open-ended questions and uncertain relationships breed.
For me though, a sister to two brothers, Greta and Valdin is about family as much as it is the pursuit of romantic love. The way our layered family histories rear up out of nowhere sometimes. The way we worry about how our actions will be received by our family and yet march on because familial bonds are often the most expansive. The way that, over time, you learn to carry this worry a little more lightly. Families can be extraordinarily flexible, stretching to accommodate and forgive a multitude of sins – and this family cares about doing so for each other.
There is a great love shared between Beatrice and Linsh, the parents of Greta, Valdin and Casper, the eldest brother. There are also things for their children to learn about this great love and the lives of their parents and uncles. Bad decisions and consequences are revealed and made, but these seldom result in great tragedy. Instead they play out as real-life consequences often do; fallout that can be forgiven, and bleeding, though staunched, that flows into the lives of the next generation. Human error doesn’t have to deal the character an almighty blow. Sometimes we cry in our bed for a day and then find things very funny. Sometimes we just graft on newly discovered pieces of ourselves not yet knowing how they will orient us in the future. Reilly’s characters do not grip revelations in a way that obviously forces plot forward, instead they absorb.
Linsh and Beatrice are written as real parents of children in their 20s in the second decade of the 21st century – not caricatures who don’t know how to text or use social media. Linsh attempts to settle the stupidest, funniest fight via an online call to Russia. The recognisable inner monologues and glorious domestic insights (the flexible washing basket “that every person in the whole country has”; learning ”how to set the VCR to record McDonald’s Young Entertainers”) feel familiar because Reilly writes intergenerational family so well. She joins her contemporaries at this prolific juncture in New Zealand literature in just writing this country the way it is, unapologetically, without excuse.
The siblings know things about each other in that way siblings do. Concerned advice is shared with one about the other. It is given genuinely but concealed within are the silly slights and inevitable jealousies that brothers and sisters nurse over time. Casper tells Greta he is concerned Valdin is disrespecting her. Greta is a little hurt that Valdin isn’t prioritising her. This hurt is remedied quickly and the wounds aren’t fatal, but they can always be exploited.
Knowing observations and in-jokes light up this book, like the unspoken language and understandings often shared by siblings. Yet Reilly is adept at nesting references that might belong to one city or one generation amongst scenes and dialogue that open them up to others. The descriptions of Auckland perfectly exemplify the dichotomy of a city that is both beloved by its residents and cursed on a daily basis, by them and the rest of the country. “I look up at the Sky Tower as if it’s the Madonna. Please save me, beautiful stucco icon of the City of Sails”.
Such references never feel exclusive. You don’t need to be very online or very Gen Z to understand them – it’s a book I could easily recommend to my mother – but the thrill of reading about places or specific cultural totems you know or can situate, isn’t dulled by this inclusivity. Mentions of dumpling restaurant New Flavour and Food Alley (RIP) result in the same kind of dopamine hit I recall when I first started borrowing Mum’s Barbara Anderson books and saw The Listener referenced in Girls High.
Greta and Valdin may be unkind to themselves but they extend a grace and generosity to others and receive the same from those around them. This is a generous book. Generous in the humour it delivers; generous in its story about love lost, family, and our fragility and hurt; generous in its embrace of contemporary New Zealand. I read it during lockdown and – without sounding too cliché or using adjectives from an undergraduate essay – it reminded me that it is OK to find humour in difficult times, and to find joy and acceptance amongst a whole lot of mess.
Greta and Valdin, by Rebecca K Reilly (Victoria University Press, $35), is available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington.