May has been ANZ Lit month over at Reading Matters. I’m late to the party but if you click on the image above, it will take you to a whole host of reviews of Australian and New Zealand literature. Here’s one of the books I’ve read (there’ll be another tomorrow).
Three-year-old Jonnie Hallwright is your typical inquisitive child.
‘When are we going? When?’
Roza yawned, looking out at the rooftops that sloped away across the suburb. Far away, the sea was a metallic blue strip. She said in an idle, distant voice, ‘Soon is a fierce dwarf who lives under the house.’
He raised his eyes.
A year later, Soon is still with them and when they take their summer break, Soon’s story seems very similar to that of the people around them. What’s most interesting about this is that Jonnie isn’t really your typical young child, he’s the son of the New Zealand Prime Minister, David Hallwright.
The Hallwright family are spending their break in Rotokauri, an exclusive beach community on the North Island. With them are Simon, Karen, Marcus and Elke Lampton, along with a host of government ministers and their families who drop in as and when needed.
The Lamptons are connected to the Hallwrights through Elke. Roza, David’s wife, aged sixteen, gave birth to a baby and had her adopted. Just before David was elected Prime Minister, Roza traced Elke to the Lamptons and revealed her secret. A significant amount of the book is taken up with the struggle between the parents – particularly Karen and Roza – over who eighteen-year-old Elke should spend time with. This has led to Karen and Roza becoming best friends, the kind of best friends who spend lots of time together and then slag each other off as soon as they’re apart, and Simon and David becoming close friends too, although they do genuinely seem to like each other.
Matters are further complicated by two things, both concerning Simon. Early in the novel, Simon receives a phone call:
‘Hello, Dr Lampton, my name’s Arthur Weeks. I was hoping I could speak to you – it’s about a friend of mine I think you might know – Mereana Kostas?’
Simon looked at a patch of light on the wall above Karen’s head.
‘Hello? Dr Lampton?’
‘You must have the wrong number.’
‘You’re Simon Lampton? I’m just looking for some information – ‘
‘Sorry. Don’t know the name. Can’t help you. Thanks.’ He hung up.
Simon had an affair with Mereana Kostas, an affair that – until this point – no one else knew about. Mereana was an ex-patient of Simon’s, young, poor, spent time in prison and had a baby who died of meningitis. He confides in Roza about the affair after Weeks’ phone call, but fails to mention Weeks’ enquiry.
The second issue, although hinted at from the start of the book, is made clear when Roza asks why Simon had an affair with someone ‘so unsuitable’.
Because I was in love with you. Because you can only do so much looking before you have to go and burn it off.
‘I don’t know,’ he said.
The novel’s driven by the struggle over Elke and the threat of Weeks, which looms over the book. Will he reveal all? What would it do to Karen, Simon and the children? Would they lose Elke to Roza and David? What would the Prime Minister do to protect himself from any scandal?
Soon is an excellent book, one of the best I’ve read this year. The writing’s taut; the themes are universal and very current (particularly in relation to the right-wing governments many countries have in place at the moment), and there’s a real narrative drive. The only issue I had was the number of characters that popped up now and again, making it difficult to keep track of who was who. I suspect this was done to show the people surrounding the Prime Minister and his family but it did allow for confusion on occasion.
The only reason I can think of that would put others off this book is that all the characters, to some extent, are vile. Not in a cartoonish way but in the way that humans can be – complicated, compromised, conservative beliefs… I think the novel is stronger for it. I love an unlikeable character and these are unlikable characters I highly recommend spending time with.
Thanks to Jonathan Cape for the review copy.