Kind by Stephanie Johnson (RHNZ Vintage, 2023), 336pp, $37
At the Auckland Writers Festival in 2021, Stephanie Johnson predicted that there were going to be many works examining the coronavirus and the unusual world of 2020. Kind is her contribution to this diverse and interesting field. It’s a novel that sits somewhere between domestic noir, thriller and satire—a bit like those lockdown days in 2020.
This clever, slightly bonkers (suspend disbelief, enjoy the next improbable twist) story has a slight fever dream feel to it. The short chapters and the quick leaps between the various stories add to a sense of febrile instability: events moving too fast, careering beyond anyone’s control, as the main players make their moves somewhat desperately, trying to stay ahead in their various games.
Some characters are grotesques, caricatures, and none are particularly likeable, which is always interesting. You want to see what they’ll do next—what upset Johnson will throw in their plans. Covid-19 itself, the illness, the deaths, the anguish of people having to stay apart, is not really a focus; it thrums in the background as people go about their more or less nefarious plots. Basically, apart from practicalities around pubs and cafes being closed and the need for keeping distances, wearing masks, and the travel restrictions to be ‘negotiated’, most of the people in Kind aren’t touched by the pandemic.
As the worrying, warm, oddly similar lockdown days wear interminably on (for those people having a comfortable, ‘good’ lockdown anyway), the bad behaviours of pre-Covid times start to re-emerge, or their consequences require attention.
In late March 2020, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern urged everyone to be kind to one another as the Covid-19 alert system level moved to level four. So, for most of the novel, Aotearoa is in lockdown, Covid is swirling unseen, and people are being kind—until some just can’t be bothered any longer. Nerves fray, and the strain shows. Quite a few have never been particularly kind and are not about to start now just because they’ve been told to. Sometimes well-meant, considered acts or words of kindness have devastating unconsidered consequences.
There is a lot going on: Kerry Anne (K.A.) McNulty has taken her little daughter Mamie to stay with her parents in Russell over lockdown. The weather is balmy, the surroundings are beautiful, the house is lovely, Mum and Dad are welcoming. It’s an idyllic place to sit out lockdown, and the lack of the usual tourists and traffic noises make the sea and bush seem shiny and new—and the birdsong is sublime! K.A. is a little too perfect, and her life seems pretty good, but nothing is quite what it seems. There is some sadness in the house. Her parents have fostered several kids over the years, with varying outcomes, and there are two boys in particular, their photos still on the wall, who are much missed. Sometimes being kind hasn’t been enough.
Joleen (Jolie) arrives, breaking the rules that don’t suit her purpose—in this case, the pandemic travel regulations—in order to spend the rest of lockdown with them. Jolie was fostered by the McNulty’s and is still the slightly difficult cuckoo in the nest. High-spirited, impulsive, troublesome and reckless, she and K.A. are loyal to each other in a way that exasperates everyone else. Jolie wants what she wants and is prepared to manipulate and scheme to get it; she may be prepared to go further. All the McNulty’s seem to fear her and fear for her. Unpredictable and grandiose, Jolie appears to need, love, hate and resent them, all at once. She is lively and wants to live a big life so badly that you sort of want her to make it happen, but that seems unlikely. We know early on that something has caught up with her: the second chapter is a letter Jolie has sent to K.A. from a prison in 2021. What trouble did she bring with her to Russell in early 2020?
Lyall Hull, K.A.’s estranged husband, a businessman and Opposition MP, has remained in Christchurch. Isolated from his team in Wellington, peevish and fed up, he’s headed out to the high country with his mountain bike, where his lack of preparation (he’d grabbed Mamie’s Elsa sleeping bag and a few muesli bars) and a snowstorm have made life likely to be nasty, brutish and short. This is before the paranoid preppers find him. And keep him. In a cage.
K.A. asks Lyall’s childhood friend, ex-undercover cop Mick, to try and track Lyall down. At Lyall’s flat, which has been turned over by someone, Mick finds a number of NZ citizenship papers and passports. Lyall is obviously involved in something very odd.
Meanwhile, out in the turbulent Tasman, a yacht carries several wealthy people—and perhaps a virus. Everyone is nervous, hopeful, peering for the long white cloud. As one of the characters points out, the ‘moat around the motu’ is vast, hard to cross and hard to guard; it’s both protective and porous. They are heading for a GPS co-ordinate and a watery rendezvous at a point easily reached by a vessel setting off from somewhere in Northland.
The short, sharp chapters follow these several storylines, darting backwards and forwards between them, Johnson keeping all the plates spinning admirably. The jumps in time and the quick changes between the many characters, whose tales become more ridiculously entangled, took me a few chapters to adapt to. For a while, you just have to jump on the ride and hang on. Johnson’s intricate plotting pulls it all together with a truly surprising twist or two along the way.
This is not a Covid novel as such; it is entirely possible for everything in the novel to have happened at any time in the last few years. Nothing in the tale is dependent on the country being in lockdown. The added frisson of lockdown runs like an anxious whine behind everything, tightening the tension and reminding the reader that even if they enjoyed parts of the lockdown experience, worry and stress were always lurking and biding their time. All the characters are stuck, locked down in more or less sticky situations of their own making, if not literally locked in a cage or stuck far out at sea. There is very little description of any of the characters, and I didn’t feel I got to know them well. The least successful are the two American preppers, holed up in a national park after having themselves smuggled into the country. The irony that Lyall may be somewhat, and unknowingly, altogether responsible for their presence isn’t quite enough to make them work.
The aspects of Jolie that make K.A., and her parents to a certain extent, so loyal to her are a bit of a mystery. As we learn more about her, she just seems selfish, nasty and unpleasant, but they do nevertheless genuinely care about her, despite several times in their lives when they could have easily and understandably walked away from her. Either Jolie can turn on the charm or there’s a really queasy dynamic where her very need for them provokes acting out and their exasperated loyalty.
Jolie herself believes she is loyal. I also wondered about how useful it might be for A.K. to always have a ‘bad girl’ friend to talk her into the things she’d otherwise have to do off her own bat. Late in the book, in one of her prison letters, Jolie mentions getting a visit from a young woman keen to do a podcast on her as ‘a pirate, an anti-corporation, anti-establishment feminist bandit.’ Jolie fascinates and charms but cannot hold the chaos together long enough to be safe around others or herself.
I found the dynamic between A.K., her parents, friend and husband really interesting and would have liked to know more about them, with the stress and constrictions of lockdown exerting particular pressures on them.
Amongst the frenetic activities of the main characters, small beautiful moments of intense kindness do occur: a dying man trying to comfort a child, a person who calls for the help that is needed. It’s a relief when a person acts simply to help another, with no side hustle on the periphery; it makes you realise that there are few people in this novel who are kind very often, or at all.
I wasn’t so interested in the thrilleresque elements, but they do make for a rollicking ride. Johnson’s clever structuring of the book sets up mysteries and reveals the answers slowly, keeping you guessing about the connections between all these people right to the end—an end that was unexpected and a little heartbreaking, as one character faces the unlooked-for consequences of a desperate act of what they thought was kindness.
BRONWYN WYLIE-GIBB was a bookseller/book buyer in independent bookshops in Aotearoa and the UK for 36 years, most recently at the Otago University Bookshop. She was the Fiction Prize judges’ convenor at the 2017 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.