I love Joe Bennett’s columns. King Rich is his first novel and much of it absolutely sings.
It’s also the first novel that I’m aware of to emerge from the Christchurch earthquakes. The time that’s elapsed since the first quake in February 2011 has eclipsed that of World War 1 and will soon overtake that of the second World War. Its impact on citizens affected by the quakes seems comparable. Horror stories of the disenfranchised, homeless, or those living in squalid conditions continue to appear on our television screens – although it has to be said that many of those stories are now conveniently tucked out of sight with the absence of John Campbell. It is, in a sense, a war in itself, only different from those fought abroad; it’s here in our midst, our country, and it’s generals aren’t given to applauding the foot soldiers.
As with all wars, it’s to be expected that a literature will evolve from out of these ruins – stories of despair and small triumphs, human perseverance and wry courage in the face of adversity. Lloyd Jones led the way with his A History of Silence, a personal memoir of discovery and identity triggered by the quakes, followed this year by Fiona Farrell’s magnificent A Villa at the Edge of the Empire , graphic, terrible, beautiful and political. There is even a book about cats that survived the earthquakes.
Like Farrell’s book, Bennett’s King Rich has the virtue of an insider’s story, a writer who bears witness to what occurred.
The story opens with Richard Jones (Rich), a crippled alcoholic, getting shoved into what we understand to be the Grand Chancellor Hotel in the middle of Christchurch’s CBD, as the February 2011 earthquake strikes. The building is vacated, leaving Rich alone in the hotel in the company of a dog.
Far away, in London, Annie, his 30-year-old daughter, sees the devastation unfolding on her television screen. She phones her mother in Blenheim to ask if she has news of her father. Raewyn, who turns out to be the nastiest mother a nice woman could fear, dismisses Annie’s inquiry. Long ago, Rich betrayed her. Raewyn has single-handedly raised Annie, and Rich has been missing for 20-odd years. The anger has never abated, although Annie harbours happier memories.
The scene for the story is thus laid out for us quickly and adroitly. Before long, Annie sets out for New Zealand to find her father. This is a quest novel, a journey with a purpose, littered with a trail of clues that must be unravelled. The novel switches between these two central characters throughout, a simple but generally effective story structure.
In the otherwise deserted Grand Chancellor, Rich is in temporary heaven. Every room has bottles of booze in the fridges, the bars are untouched, enough grog to last him a lifetime. There is food in the kitchen that he can cook on the gas stove. He twinkles his way around, living it up. Of course it doesn’t last. The vast supplies of food turn putrid, and the whole rotting hulk of the hotel becomes a metaphor for the evils that will befall the stricken city.
The book is a compulsive page-turner. It’s not giving too much away to reveal that Rich was gay, that there are a string of his lovers for Annie to discover, and that Raewyn’s bitter fury is focused on the scandal of having accidentally conceived and been forced by the times to marry an homosexual. This is the second, but important layer of the novel – an exploration of what it was like to be gay in the oppressive era before homosexuality was legalised.
It’s unfortunate that all the wives are portrayed as having cruel tongues and attitudes. When Karl, a former business partner, remarks to Annie that “your dad was never in love with Raewyn”, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone that this wife might have suffered too. Karl describes his own wife as “a very conventional woman”, and she also wreaks some havoc on the plot.
I read this novel with voracious enthusiasm, at times, but there are areas that trouble me. It creaks in places. As the cover blurb says, Bennett is a superb writer. Whether he is consistently “writing at the top of his game”, as the blurb also tells us, is another matter, a variable perhaps. There are passages that are utterly beautiful, splendid in their detail, and heart-rending as they portray the crumbling edifice of the body, alongside that of the city. However, the dialogue falls flat in several instances, and the unpleasantness of almost all the women leaves a sometimes sour taste.
But it’s a novel to savour, a convincing evocation of this country’s war zone and its inhabitants.
King Rich (Fourth Estate, $36.99) by Joe Bennett is available at Unity Books