Crazy Love: A novel by Rosetta Allan (Penguin Random House NZ, 2021), 329pp, $36
In hindsight, the subtitle should have tipped me off: ‘A novel’. The last pukapuka I reviewed for Landfall, A Runner’s Guide to Rakiura: A novel, had the same subtitle, but in that case, it was so the reader didn’t mistake it for an actual running guide. Here, the claim to fiction is doing a lot of heavy lifting—and not very successfully.
Crazy Love: A novel by Rosetta Allan opens in 2008 with a chapter written in the third person about Billy nearly jumping off the Auckland Harbour Bridge and changing his mind at the thought of his wife, Vicki. The next chapter is a letter from Vicki to Robert Muldoon in 2012, reminding him of the time she wrote to him back in the 1980s:
[the original letter] was from the nineteen-year-old who was old enough to vote for the first time, asking questions about the economy. The one who failed basic training because of complications from a rushed abortion. The one living on a pie a day because that’s all she could afford on the dole after rent … you stapled a crisp, brown-and-white dollar note to [your reply] … for a second meat pie.
The rest of this pukapuka, which is told in diary-style from Vicki’s point of view, is separated into three sections: ‘Before’ (in the 1980s), ‘During’ (in 2012) and ‘After’ (partly in late 2012, then with a skip forward to 2020). The central event around which these sections are structured is a severe episode of Billy’s mental illness. Billy and Vicki meet as young adults in Napier in the 1980s, where they are both living in poverty and surrounded by violence. At the end of ‘Before’, they take off to Tāmaki Makaurau to marry and quickly have two children. The entire book is essentially a portrait of their decades-long abusive marriage.
And this is where I get into trouble. If Crazy Love is indeed a novel, it’s one thing for me to say it is the distressing story of two hurt people hurting one another over and over again. But if, as Rosetta Allan’s acknowledgements would seem to imply, Crazy Love is more of a memoir, then it’s quite another thing for me to critique Allan’s real-life choices.
It’s difficult to overstate how full of pain and cruelty this pukapuka is and, if it’s true, how much more upsetting that makes it. In ‘Before’, the domestic violence is omnipresent, not just within Vicki’s relationships but in all the relationships around her. ‘What could I really do anyway? Where would I take her [Vicki’s neighbour who is being beaten by her partner]? All I had was my own mini prison down the hall.’ Despite the constant danger, the tone of ‘Before’ is meandering and has the repetitiveness of real life rather than the structured narrative of a novel.
‘During’ is a vivid, blow-by-blow account of Vicki’s life with the erratic and violent Billy during an acute episode of his mental illness. Each chapter is titled with the date and sometimes the time when more than one entry takes place on the same day. This, combined with the taut writing style, gives this section the tense feeling of a crisis unfolding in real time: ‘I wanted Billy till he killed me. And that was what it felt like. He was literally killing me.’ By now, Vicki has started to hurt Billy back, and there’s one particularly upsetting scene in which she nearly smothers him to death with a pillow, crowing that when he tells people what she did, they won’t believe him.
‘After’ is the weakest part of Crazy Love—the urgency has passed and is replaced with a vague, hand-wavey vibe that, although nothing has fundamentally changed, everything is somehow now fine. Vicki, who has ditched friends who tried to point out her and Billy’s co-dependency, smugly describes their marriage as ‘unorthodox’. She sees their failed attempts to leave one another not as a classic symptom of intimate partner abuse but as a triumph of love overcoming all. Towards the end of the pukapuka, Vicki describes her behaviour now: ‘It’s deliberate cruelty. And I like it. I do it because I can. Just to remind him that he’s mine. And no one would believe him if he complained about it anyway.’
Aside from public figures such as Muldoon, Vicki and Billy are the only two named characters in the whole book; everyone else is referred to by a nickname. This, combined with the way Billy looms front and centre of Vicki’s every waking thought, gives the story a clammy sense of claustrophobia. It’s as though Billy is the only person Vicki can recognise as truly real. Even their own children are referred to dismissively as ‘surly-daughter’ and ‘eat-and-run-son’. They are minor players in their parents’ drama and have, very wisely, mostly absented themselves. In one of her flashes of insight, Vicki recognises her children’s right to estrange themselves from her and Billy as acts of self-protection, much as she has estranged herself from her own mother.
Another running theme in the pukapuka that I found really off-putting was the fatphobia. In one scene, Vicki investigates their attic, where she says Pacific Island families used to hide from the Dawn Raids. She finds dresses ‘so large I couldn’t help wondering if the upstairs pseudo-apartment had been sublet to a cross-dresser’ before going on and on about how ‘that big-dress person’ must have found it difficult to get in and out of the attic trapdoor: ‘I admit that I kept visualising a bum getting stuck and having to be pushed from behind like a comical skit as the police rapped at the door.’ Not a person, a bum.
Vicki also blames her and Billy’s lack of sex life on his ‘bulbous belly’, contrasting this unfavourably with her own stress-induced disordered eating and resultant thinness. In one scene, Billy buys Vicki a pie, which she refuses to eat despite ‘yearning’ to taste it: ‘I had gone an entire weekend without eating once. I could refuse a simple pie … he threw the crescent of pastry rim away. The best part, the buttery crust that is stand-alone-divine. He threw that into the garden like it was insignificant.’
As a character, Vicki broke my heart and drove me up the wall. I felt a great deal of compassion for her, especially in ‘Before’, while simultaneously being alienated by her dogged insistence on staying with Billy:
Alone, I’m left like an undeveloped film … If I was a different person, a more proactive type, I’d have changed that about myself a long time ago. It would have saved me from Billy’s yoyo highs and lows, only then I’d have had the Dull-Ville life I dreaded … Billy needs me as much as I need him. Together, we’re a team. We push on. Same as it ever was.
In a piece for Newsroom about the importance of talking openly about mental illness, Allan wrote: ‘I admit, when I initially wrote Crazy Love, I had no intention of confessing that it was based on my life—that was a last-minute decision’, citing Charlotte Grimshaw’s The Mirror Book as inspiration. Revealingly, in the same piece she writes about a friend who messaged her to say: ‘I finished your book a few days ago, and I’m still processing things, but when I have, I need to talk to you about it.’ Allan doesn’t say how this conversation went, but I can’t help wondering whether this was yet another friend horrified by what she’s learned—another friend who’s about to get cut off so that the fantasy of the incomprehensible specialness of Vicki and Billy’s love can continue uninterrupted.
In her arotake pukapuka for Newsroom, Sue Orr said she ended up choosing to read Crazy Love as a memoir rather than a novel as instructed. The pukapuka itself seems undecided about its own form. It starts off strong in the fiction camp with the subtitle ‘A novel’ and the third-person narration from Billy’s point of view, to which we never return. Vicki’s correspondence with Muldoon also feels very novelistic (although, knowing local politics, I absolutely believe it could have happened), but again, this theme peters out. Instead, at the end of the acknowledgements we get the biographies of two mental health specialists, as though they were contributing authors, followed by a list of hotlines and other resources, which feel very much part of the eleventh-hour shift towards non-fiction. This and her Newsroom piece make me suspect that Allan thinks she’s written a pukapuka about mental illness. But, for me, Crazy Love is about cruelty and the stories it disguises itself with in order to keep happening. Tread with care.
ELIZABETH HERITAGE My ancestors came from England. We are tangata tiriti. I was born in Tāmaki Makaurau in the shadow of Ōwairaka, in the rohe of Ngāti Whātua. I now live in Te Whanganui-a-Tara in the rohe of Te Āti Awa. I hold a first-class honours degree in English and History from the University of Otago Te Whare Wānanga o Ōtākou.