Monday, November 16, 2015
Review: STARLIGHT PENINSULA
Reviewed by Stephanie Jones
Virginia Woolf said of Jane Austen that “of all great writers she is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness.” At the close of Charlotte Grimshaw’s STARLIGHT PENINSULA, Eloise Hay pens a pensive, no-loose-ends letter to her psychotherapist: “As I write . . . it’s the beginning of that special kind of iron light, signaling autumn is on the way. The sky is bright, hard, blue; air is very clear. Along the peninsula road, the windows are lit up.” This final chapter brings to an end the stories of a posse of recurring characters, among them TV current affairs producer Eloise, New Zealand Prime Minister David Hallwright and his wife Rosa, and Hallwright friend and confidante Simon Lampton, who have appeared in five Grimshaw novels.
And this double conclusion – of a resonant, penetrating novel and of the arcs of a full cast through several volumes – confirms Grimshaw as a writer whose greatness, like Austen’s, is sly and subtle rather than declamatory. Somewhat unexpectedly, at least for readers less familiar with her earlier work, STARLIGHT PENINSULA also reveals her to be an accomplished crime writer.
Much like Tina Shaw’s THE CHILDREN’S POND, a finalist for the 2015 Ngaio Marsh Award, STARLIGHT PENINSULA starts out in a more straightforward literary lane before ending up somewhere else. This is not to say either novel is less than perfectly composed: THE CHILDREN’S POND is at its root a powerful study of familial dysfunction and individual tenacity, while STARLIGHT PENINSULA, in giving the spotlight to Eloise, follows a woman lost in the wake of marital abandonment.
Eloise’s struggle to reclaim her sense of identity would make a satisfying novel in itself; the first half of STARLIGHT PENINSULA tracks her wandering to and from the titular site, a gentrifying suburb on the central Auckland fringes, and her work at a national television enterprise, where she and current affairs journalist and presenter Scott Raysmith, who bears more than a passing resemblance to John Campbell, are pursuing a story involving Kurt Hartmann, a Kim Dotcom duplicate who is recognized by Eloise as “someone intelligent, gauche, amoral, young.”
Eloise remains sharp-eyed despite grief and self-medication – she accidentally sets fire to part of the peninsula while in a cleansing mood, and has to postpone her plan to give up drinking after absent-mindedly pouring a glass of wine – and this acuity enables her, in the novel’s second half, to lift the lid on the buried secrets behind the death of her former boyfriend. Arthur’s demise several years before was ruled accidental and attributed to intoxication, and when it at last occurs to Eloise to demand answers, her media skills find application in a deeper investigation, and all roads lead in the direction of the former Prime Minister and his devoted consigliere.
It’s difficult to capture what exactly makes Grimshaw’s writing so distinctive and penetrating. It is spare yet sparkling, unshowy, surgically precise, often satirical. She seems to dig, word by word, into the heart of what it means to be human, using language both lyrical and muscular: “there were diamonds of light on water shirred by the breeze that smacked down and spread like a hand pressed on the surface.”
Eloise begins the novel adrift, rejected, clinging to her work and her idea of herself as a fine observer of human idiosyncrasy and ambition. By the end, she is found, rooted in place and certain, all wrongs put right. An exquisitely calibrated examination of truth and consequence, and a superb crime story, STARLIGHT PENINSULA evinces Grimshaw’s exceptional literary sleight of hand.
Stephanie Jones is the book reviewer for Coast FM radio in New Zealand, and a member of the judging panel for the 2016 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel. You can read many of her Coast FM reviews here.
Stephanie previously reviewed STARLIGHT PENINSULA for Coast FM, but has kindly written this new review for Crime Watch, including further reflections on Grimshaw's tale, which was today named on the Listener's 100 Best Books list.