Mazarine by Charlotte Grimshaw (Vintage, 2018), 288 pp., $38
Frances’ daughter Maya is travelling in Europe and hasn’t contacted her mother for two and a half weeks. Maya’s friends and colleagues are disconcertingly evasive. When going for a walk with her dog, Frances meets her ex, who’s never usually in this part of Auckland. Scent triggers memories, but, paradoxically, the smell of dogshit evokes a happy time spent in Menton as a child. Frances’ mother Inez isn’t really her mother: she’s adopted. And Inez – an estate agent, her smiling face appearing regularly on signs around Auckland, ‘renowned for being kind and good, honest and selfless’ – isn’t nearly as sweet as she appears. We learn in the first few pages of Grimshaw’s latest novel that things are not as they seem.
Grimshaw has a merciless eye and a talent for revealing character. Inez is believable to the point of making this reader squirm. ‘Child-like innocence was a favourite vantage point from which to launch all sorts of mischief,’ writes Grimshaw. Frances, like her creator, is both blessed and cursed with a clear, perceptive eye, accompanied with the understanding that in finding fault with the loved and the popular, the fault-finder is usually the loser. The relationship between Inez and her adopted daughter is exquisitely portrayed, most tellingly in the memory Frances has of attending her uncle’s funeral. Inez hasn’t bothered coming home from her overseas holiday for her brother’s funeral, and phones Frances expecting ‘a stream of jokes at the expense of the bereaved’ – something Frances, on this occasion, isn’t prepared to join in with. Yes; I squirmed. And yes, I wanted the whole novel to be about Inez, in all her horror.
I was less involved with Frances’ relationship with her siblings, not to mention a little irritated. Why had her parents chosen to call their son Frank and their adopted daughter Frances? Does Frank actually exist? At one point, Frances’ long-suffering kindly analyst, Dr Bismarck, suggests that he doesn’t. As to why her birth children should find little fault in the Machiavellian Inez – this is perhaps understandable, that they should take her side against what could well be the cuckoo in the nest. And quite early on, the reader senses that we are getting the point of view of someone who is an unreliable narrator. Things may indeed not be how she sees them. Frances can recognise people, but she has a disorder that prevents her from remembering faces. And Dr Bismarck, who, she suspects, thinks she has ‘some sort of dissociative disorder’, agrees with her own vision of having more than one self.
The novel then turns from an examination of Frances’ unsatisfactory relationship with Inez and Frances’ siblings to concentrate on her search for the missing Maya. Maya, Frances tells us, is fortunate to be like her dead father Patrick in almost every way. She’s attractive, effortlessly popular and close to her mother. Indeed, she’s the only person who we can be sure Frances loves. But she’s not in touch with Frances, or hasn’t been for a couple of weeks, other than a brief email that doesn’t sound like her at all: ‘Hallo. I’ve left Istanbul. Warm wishes.’ Hallo, spelt with an A? Warm wishes? This reminds us of how different ‘contact’ is in this decade of this century. Frances muses how people are easily contactable now, but that we have no idea where anyone is physically … further enhancing the paradoxes on which this novel is based.
Exit Inez, enter Mazarine, the character whose name is the book’s title. I sulked for a bit. Inez and Mazarine are differently annoying. The glee that I felt in observing Inez’s awfulness is supressed by having to observe Mazarine’s initial worthiness. Not worthiness exactly – a sort of placid, crisp self-regard. In this book, in which at all times a reader’s expectations are challenged and assaulted, we are now introduced to a character who one could normally expect to be a saviour of sorts. For several pages she does appear helpful and – albeit reluctantly – problem-solving; a straightforward addition to Frances’ life. Normally, I would have expected to like her. Why didn’t I? If the reader is initially slightly repelled by her, is that the reader’s problem?
I was more comfortable with Frances – likeable, and only marginally exasperating. Frances is a novelist: she has published an acclaimed volume of short stories and is about to start on a longer work. Any writer who reads a book in which the protagonist is a writer, feels a sense of unease. Will the novelist who is writing the book be able to successfully create a character apart from themselves? Will the reader be able to stop themselves looking for clues that the fictional narrator is a superficially disguised version of the person actually telling the story?
Grimshaw is far too clever to have done this lightly. In fact, it’s clearly part of her plan. In an era where ‘fake’ news creates a sense of ongoing insecurity about what’s real and what isn’t, Grimshaw exploits this by having, at the core of her novel, not only a novel-writing narrator who is unreliable, but a semi-intrusive author. Does Frances have any control over her life, or is she a puppet of her maker? Of course, the answer is that ALL fictional characters act at the whim of their creator. But not often in fiction does the author play a Hitchcockian walk-on part. On at least three occasions Grimshaw – or someone who looks very like her – makes a cameo appearance: ‘A woman came soundlessly up the stairs and looked straight at me … a face I felt I’d seen before, with full lips, a turned-down mouth, straight brown hair, brown eyes …’ Yet again, the blurred line between appearance and reality. Grimshaw is playing with what literature can and cannot do. She is reminding us that fiction is always a lie, a story told that asks you to suspend disbelief.
It’s an interesting concept and one that works generally here, though once the reader has noticed it’s happening, it causes a level of disconnection. In real life there’s no changing who your biological parents are; in fiction a writer can choose to give you different parents. One ‘unresolved’ story line is Frances’ parentage. I found the issue of this fascinating. While finding her relationship with her adoptive family difficult, Frances seems singularly incurious about her birth parents. There are sly references – there’s a vague memory of meeting, as a child in Menton, a man with the same sort of down-turned mouth as Frances; there’s a hint he may be her grandfather. The reader’s left wondering – is Frances the biological grandchild of, say, Pablo Picasso? Or, intriguingly, C.K. Stead? But once that meeting is inserted in the story, it disappears, remaining only as a disconcerting image in the reader’s mind.
Given the awfulness of Inez – who might well, given that Frances is an unreliable narrator, be a total sweetheart if we’d seen her through other eyes – it’s not surprising that Frances is searching for a mother substitute, if not for her birth mother. She initially seems to find it in Mazarine. When Frances turns up announced, Mazarine is composed and dignified, albeit a little unwelcoming. Ah, I thought: here’s someone who will help Frances settle. But always on the verge of slipping into wise counsellor-speak, Mazarine turns out to be an added complication. Like Frances, she is prone to erratic, spontaneous behaviour. She is particularly manipulative. By the end of the book – and only days have passed – Frances declares that Mazarine is as significant in her life as her late husband Patrick (he sounds calm and wonderful; I miss him without having actually met him) and her equally grounded daughter Maya. Frances! Make better choices!
Frances’ ex-partner, the freaky, intrusive Nick, turns up all round the world – but Mazarine isn’t much better. Because we are inhabiting Frances’ possibly deranged mind, we don’t know if Nick is really there or not. And we’re destined to never know. But we can assume that it’s true that the maddening Mazarine takes it into her head to follow Frances to London, and to turn up at the place where she is staying. After all, the digs are her suggestion, she knows exactly where Frances is lodged. Her apparent rationale is the same as Frances’: her son Joe has also gone out of range, she wants to find him, particularly because her politicised other son is currently living in the suburb of Paris that is home to dislocated Muslim youth. Quite quickly it’s shown that Mazarine’s attitude to Frances is not maternal, she’s a seducer. Now Frances has another ambivalence in her life – is she straight or gay? Or both? Is anyone actually either of those things – does it depend on the people who come into one’s life?
When we remove ourselves from the structured hurricane of this novel, it’s necessary to admire Grimshaw’s ability to evoke place. We’re in the seat beside her as she drives through Auckland’s rain; we know that place she stays in London. We’re in the street when the woman stumbles and falls; we may not know the significance of it, but we do see it. She writes as if she has a camera strapped to her head, and her shots are edited with superb economy. No wonder her character has made quite a good stash writing filmscripts; indeed NZ on Air should cough up immediately to hire Grimshaw to write a filmscript from this novel.
I was left marvelling, not only at Grimshaw’s ferocious talent, but at her gall, her audaciousness, her mischievous ability to play with a reader’s expectations of fiction. Nothing is set up that can’t be kicked sideways. Paradox, smoke and mirrors, equivocation: things are not what they seem. And there’s always that feeling that there’s a sly joke at the heart of it. There’s Frances, a writer herself of literary fiction, the chief protagonist of an intensely literary novel, mildly sneering at Mazarine’s love of airport thrillers. And then there’s Frances and Mazarine finding themselves in a world that reads like an airport thriller – threatening people who turn up unexpectedly, pickpockets and foreign places which are not as they seem. Identical, instantly recognisable tattoos. Missing people, terrorists, computer files which, if they could only be accessed, would reveal all. Hackers, manipulators of elections and – in the midst of all this – normal phone calls with seductively straightforward explanations.
This is an intensely readable, indeed engrossing, very filmic novel. It’s very likely to be prize-winning. And, broadly speaking, it works. While its message is that we’re living in times of great chaos, the novel mirroring this exists as a terrifying, memorable whole. I ended it feeling like a pathetic, panting puppy, my brain an unwelcome tangle. I applaud someone with the talent of the redoubtable Grimshaw, playing in a most timely manner with what is fiction and what isn’t. But I might just go off now and read – I dunno … Joanna Trollope?
LINDA BURGESS is a Wellington writer.