The Wild Card by Renée (The Cuba Press, 2019) 246pp., $35
I have a sister who was adopted. It was this unspoken thing, mostly. It was a fact that shimmered behind her eyes. The way she looked at me, our younger brother and our dad, the way she would shut down and simmer with feelings I couldn’t fathom. I went with her to meet her birth father when I was fourteen and she was nineteen. It was pretty tough. I think we had both hoped it would ease the tension in her bones but it didn’t. Something between us unravelled after that; I felt a disconnect in my sister, a resignation that floored the family house with hardwood. Reading The Wild Card by the matriarch of New Zealand literature, Renée, is like being let under the floorboards of genealogical trauma, crawling through brambles of history till we come out into the uncomfortable glare of the opening-night lights of the present.
Ruby is adopted and doesn’t know her birth parents, and this mystery runs through the book alongside a more sinister story that slowly unfurls like a tight fist holding a jewel. Our protagonist is a character who has well-disguised grief and pain. She holds this barrier up to prevent assistance and intimacy and, because of it, is palpably believable. She actively stops anyone from getting too close and pulls away at the slightest threat of disloyalty. Ruby was left in a kete at a small-town state home for children, and that is all she knows about her biological beginnings. This story is as much about the mystery of Ruby’s identity as it is about the disturbing events that unfold around her, which have followed her and continue to haunt her. Ruby is a stubborn, funny, independent and strong young woman (I say young: she’s my age, ripe 30s. I feel Renée would agree. Deal.) We don’t spend any time on her looks or on her biological clock, though we spend a fair amount of time on her affection for pies, and I’m here for it.
Some things may change, she thought, but pies remain.
Ruby is a fascinating mix of things, as we all are. As a writer I know how difficult it is to create a believable, complex character, and this is something Renée has done skillfully. There were moments when Ruby felt timeless – or from another time. Her mannerisms seemed to come from another generation, though perhaps her mention of things like her ‘smartphone’ and ‘biscuit tin’ pulled me out of her authenticity momentarily. However, I then think of my own cousin Ruby – her earnestness is from our tipuna’s generation – and so Ruby of the book becomes perhaps both of us, all of us, at any time: a sign that the creation of this woman is universally relatable.
I’m fine apart from looking like a colander.
Renée doesn’t muck about. There is a sizzling entry into The Wild Card, her first novel in the crime genre. We are met with suspense, violence and murky love language all within the first chapter.
She was fizzing like a well-shaken bottle of Coke.
I’m certain I hadn’t ever read a crime novel before. I am a self-proclaimed wuss, especially with reading, as my imagination is very colourful. I turned each page a little cautiously at first, but was soon reminded that I was being led by an expert. For Renée has a way with storytelling that is like being wrapped in a warm blanket. The narrative feeds us a mystery with a near-perfect dose of intrigue and darkness.
I have learnt since that Renée cut her teeth on crime novels, which she secretly read alongside her mother. She sometimes missed an ending when a book was returned to the library before her clandestine sessions could finish.
The ravenous reader and plot-developer in Renée blossoms in this story of small-town Aotearoa. It’s a complicated community. Renée says, ‘I wanted to clothe all this in a style that played against the content.’
There are a lot of characters in this story – at times too many to hold on to. While some are beautifully developed and build empathy from the reader, there are many that I didn’t get quite enough time with; I felt that if I had, it would have led to more of a shock behind the fantastic revelations in the last part of the novel. That aside, the intriguing thing about having so many characters is that the story is busy, and like any ‘whodunnit’ mystery, you need enough characters to make it a convincingly discombobulating hunt.
The first story is that of Beth, an older girl at the state home. She is the one who kept Ruby safe when she was little, until she couldn’t any more and Ruby’s life changed. The mystery begins with Beth.
Renée says that setting the novel in a small town was intentional: ‘Somehow the life of the town matters, at least to me.’
Porohiwi. A small country town with its own share of the heartless, the hopeless, the helpless, all attracting the same mix of kind or cutting comments as anywhere else.
This sense of bustling diversity and intrigue is often overlooked when thinking about our smaller communities. Woven within the narratives are gay love stories, diverse cultures, diverse age, love in your twenties, love in your nineties. There is a story of a local paper fighting to survive and, at the heart of it all, the theatre. The Oscar Wilde play The Importance of Being Earnest is about to open at the local theatre and Ruby is playing the lead, Lady Bracknell. This is alongside Ruby’s day job of researching and writing a history of the town. You can almost smell the musty funk of the dressing rooms, as much of the book revolves around the theatre. Each chapter begins with a quote from the play; this means we, too, are kept in the script that Ruby is currently existing alongside.
Oscar is her ex-partner – and all of a sudden she has to work with him. Their reunion is abrupt and then awkwardly familiar as their history unfolds. The sexual tension and unresolved hurt between the couple smoulders through the story, at times in an excruciating way. I may have yelled ‘Just kiss already!’ a couple of times.
Ruby’s best friend Kristina is her most trusted ally. This firm friendship is portrayed realistically with the difficulties and secrets that old friends hold together, not to mention a crush on Oscar’s sister throwing some interesting dynamics into the mix. In some ways Ruby and Kristina’s story is the true (platonic) romance of the story.
Throughout the book there is a cryptic play on card games. Ruby remembers card players out the back at home home and Beth hustling her away; she learns how to play smart from her adoptive mother Kate and gets in trouble with Oscar over a game of euchre when they are teenagers.There are also characters with names like ‘Club’ and ‘Diamond’, and Ruby carries a notebook full of playing-card codes everywhere.
As the story unravels, so to do the strands of connection. They are held taut by the master storyteller though and we only get flashes of their meaning.
We know where she is. We know where she works. We can take her any time we like.
There is careful but intentional exposure of state homes in this story, and of the abuse and neglect that happened, particularly to Māori children. Ruby’s story is a comparatively victorious and lucky one, but the trauma of her time there plays out in many of her relationships. She is taken in by Kate and her partner Daisy, and is later adopted by Kate and a friend, Marlon – a reminder of the discrimination against gay couples adopting children in the last thirty years. The fact that there is a village of people in the story of Ruby’s childhood is part of the fibre of the story and a testament to community.
Kate’s mother Meg is another fantastic character and one we get to know better towards the end of the book. Her past is chequered, she has a younger lover and cares not for housework at ninety. I can’t help but feel Renée may have cast a cameo of herself in Meg, à la Quentin Tarantino.
The final scenes of this story sum up the beauty of the book as a whole. It takes twists that knock the breath out of you, it warms you with hope for humanity, it revels in the complex imperfections that make up whānau and hapori, that weave a community together. It reveals a precious jewel in Renée’s unfurled palm.
ARIHIA LATHAM is a writer and facilitator in Wellington. She is Ngāi Tahu Māori, Dutch, Norwegian, English and Irish. Her work has been published in two Huia short-fiction collections, Landfall, Verb and Oranui literary journals, and Awa Wahine and Te Whē online journals. She has presented work at Litcrawl and Verb festival and the New Zealand Festival of the Arts. She can be found on Twitter and Instagram @writtenbyarihia