Eddy, Eddy by Kate de Goldi (Allen & Unwin, 2022), 288pp, $29.99
Kate de Goldi’s scintillating novel Eddy, Eddy, tells the story of the eponymous Eddy Smallbone, 19, a school dropout and now part-time dog walker and shift worker at New World and his journey through the last months of 2012, two years after the first earthquake that shook Christchurch.
This book’s title is instructive: Eddy suggests swirl and turmoil, while the repetition suggests both exasperation and a plea. Eddy’s life is swirling. He is an orphan, living with his uncle, always referred to as Brain, one of a quartet of mildly eccentric friends and relatives who keep a kindly eye on him. Although he had been a potential scholarship candidate, personal issues compelled him to leave school for menial work; his love life has fallen apart and there are clearly deeper issues that, in the meantime, remain diffuse and unexplained. This mystery provides the subtle tension underlying the plot, and the reveal, when it comes, is more of a sad confirmation than a rug-pull, but striking for all of that. Foregrounded are day-to-day events and the dance of off-beat characters, with their rich and fascinating conversations and minor obsessions.
The book opens with a quotation cited by Brain: ‘Marley was dead: to begin with. There was no doubt whatsoever about that.’ This is from A Christmas Carol by Dickens. It is apposite because Marley has, in fact, just died, although not the misanthropic partner of Scrooge in the Dickens novella, but an old Labrador, Eddy’s pet from way back. It is apposite also as it foreshadows the gentle parallels and echoes of the Dickens tale with that of Eddy, notably in the description of the Christmas gathering in the December section of the book, an otherwise convivial evening of food, wine and song spoiled for Eddy by his own Ghost of Christmas Past.
Marley’s death, Eddy realises, is the end of an era but also the mark of a new beginning, or as Brain describes it somewhat sententiously, ‘God closes a door, opens a window.’ God is mentioned early in the novel, as the Catholic church loomed large in Eddy’s early life and still does in Brain’s. Eddy now claims to be agnostic. A recurring character in the book is the Modern Priest, one of a number of characters usually referred to by a nickname. The Modern Priest, aka Christopher Mangan, a friend of Brain, had been Eddy’s teacher, although ‘these days he scarcely believed a word that fell from Modern Priest’s mendacious lips’. The Modern Priest had lost his position in the Church because of financial shenanigans, but his priestly ways and vocabulary still hang about him, and his parish connections are useful in providing contacts for Eddy’s new dog-walking and pet-minding business.
That Eddy should use a word like mendacious may be partly attributed to Brain, who was a lover of words, and the fact that Eddy liked to explore the further reaches of vocabulary. His language, quirky and idiosyncratic, is one of the many delights of the book. For example, here is Eddy on the Modern Priest, reacting to the priest’s calling him ‘Edmundo’ when suggesting another customer for Eddy’s dog-walking and pet-minding enterprise:
He detested the Modern Priest calling him Edmundo. But it was an uncomfortable fact that the foundations of his pet business (surely eight clients constituted a business?) had come through the well-oiled connections of Father Chris Mangan, one-time Cathedral administrator, now disgraced. The cathedral lay in ruins, the parish was scattered, the choir master had lost a leg, and the Modern Priest had been removed from his position. Yet he carried on regardless, glad-handing, spreading god-dust, shepherding an invisible flock …
This is delicious skewering. The almost effervescent language bubbles with life and wit—‘spreading god-dust’—and while doing so, of course, it neatly develops the character of both the priest and Eddy. And the Catholic Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament did indeed lay in ruins in the aftermath of the earthquakes. Kate de Goldi is pitch-perfect in evoking the era. I lived in Christchurch myself during this time and can vouch for this. To add verisimilitude, she uses actual street names and suburbs to give actuality to the settings (Paparoa Street, Bishop Street, Riccarton, Addington). Eddy walks these streets as the setting shifts between Brain’s house and that of Josie Mulholland, who initially hires Eddy to walk her dog, but who ultimately employs him to mind her two children and as a general factotum: doing the shopping and cooking and generally organising the life of the house. The children—the taciturn Jasper and the chatty and impulsive Delphine—both come to rely on Eddy, and he responds in turn.
The book, while for the most part written in the third person (with some short first-person sections in the voice of Boo, Eddy’s girlfriend), generally expresses Eddy’s point of view. It is an entertaining point of view. Eddy is very bright and opinionated, and his language is gloriously captured. The cultural references are catholic, too, in the sense of wide-ranging and often unexpected: Murder in the Cathedral rubs shoulders with Georgette Heyer; Dale Carnegie rubs shoulders with Narnia. The Castle—the Aussie film, not Kafka—is cited alongside Putumayo recordings. When Brain meets Sue Lombardo for the first time, de Goldi has Eddy articulate a whole range of startlingly various comparisons to illuminate the encounter: ‘It was like seeing two historic figures, or book characters, brought together for some necessary summit. Hildegard of Bingen and Albus Dumbledore. Matthew Cuthbert and Kate Shepherd …’
The figures who populate the novel are equally various. In addition to the wise, forbearing Brain, the flawed Modern Priest, and Josie Mulholland and her kids, we meet the aforementioned, beautifully sane, ex-nun Sue Lombardo, who owns a foul-mouthed parrot yclept Mother Julia. Then there’s Eddy’s ‘wild’ godmother Bridgie, his cousin Ginge, his old school friend Thos More and, of course, Eddy’s girlfriend, Boo O’Brien. These characters are utterly individual. While some have more significant roles to play in Eddy’s story, none is unimportant and all have life breathed into them.
Boo and Thos More, even though they dislike each other and rarely, if ever, interact, are of similar importance: Boo sits at the positive pole and her influence is benign; Thos More is negative and inadvertently malign. Boo has returned to Christchurch after two years and three months away; Thos More, with whom Eddy has made music, has retreated to his sleep-out—and increasingly to his bed—where he exists in a hermit-like fug. Thos More, then, unlike his saintly namesake, is no saint. The true nature of his significance in Eddy’s story is artfully concealed but provides the main emotional tension of the book. He has become Eddy’s personal eumenides, or fury, and it is only by finally confronting this ‘Ghost of Christmas Past’ that Eddy can be redeemed.
Boo is Eddy’s love interest, and in the course of the novel’s five months, they fall into an affectionate physical relationship, overcoming their earlier missteps. She is an attractive personality, intelligent and witty and a good foil for Eddy, whom she playfully refers to as Mr Kleinbein, the German equivalent of Smallbone.
There is much comedy in the interplay of these characters, but it is surface comedy. Beneath the surface, there are depths of despair and the pain of unresolved issues. The tension between the two and the mystery surrounding them makes for compelling reading. The result is a memorable story, beautifully written, rich in language, utterly convincing and satisfying, and with a cast of characters who will live long in the mind. I usually hesitate and reconsider before stating a book deserves to be regarded as a New Zealand classic, but in this case, I confidently claim Eddy, Eddy will be.
JAMES NORCLIFFE’s recent books include his 2023 poetry collection Letter to ‘Oumuamua, published by Otago University Press, his novel The Frog Prince (Penguin Random) and The Crate: A Ghost Story (Quentin Wilson Publishing), a novel for young people. In 2022 he won the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in Poetry, and in 2023 the Storylines Margaret Mahy Medal for his writing for children and young people.