We conclude our week-long look at Charlotte Grimshaw’s sensational memoir with a review by Philip Matthews
At Home with CK Stead has become something of a journalistic genre, and why not? Who wouldn’t want to encounter the writer in his natural habitat, where, it is usually assumed, an enviable balance of high-powered intellectual achievement and ordinary, middle-class family life has been achieved. Not for him the seediness of the bedsit or the poverty of the garret. The NZ Herald’s former profile writer, the talented Michele Hewitson, set the tone on at least one occasion: “And so now here we are again, in the lovely house in Parnell where he lives with his equally lovely wife Kay … I like going to his house and I like that you can peek into what is now the poet laureate’s house from the street and see the bookshelves and the art and think: That is just the sort of house the poet laureate should live in. It is comfortable and very orderly and it is a brainy house, somehow. It is also a very calm house – designed for thinking in, you think.”
Brainy, orderly. Words like “order” come up fairly often in Charlotte Grimshaw’s memoir The Mirror Book, an account of life as the middle child in that supposedly calm and comfortable household. It’s a portrait of the senior writer as something of a control freak, and his control freakery can take unexpected comic forms. Who imagined that Karl, as Grimshaw calls him throughout, would fly into a rage if someone other than him divided up portions of food at a family meal, or that it was considered a major offence to take fruit from the bowl without asking first? You picture John Cleese in a scene from Fawlty Towers.
But it’s more serious than that. The Mirror Book has appeared at a particular cultural moment, when, to put it crudely, the authority of old white men is being challenged, whether they are fathers, bosses or presidents. The first public break between Stead, who is in his 80s, and Grimshaw, who is in her 50s, came when Stead was on the wrong side of the Roast Busters story and his daughter called him out on it (“Karl leaned into my face and said with maximum scorn, ‘They weren’t raped’. But how did he know?”). The wrong subjects kept coming up at the dinner table. Stead and Grimshaw argued about Woody Allen and Ronan Farrow, the entitled artist father and the whistleblowing son, and you can guess who took which side. Meanwhile, Kay expressed sympathy for Harvey Weinstein and wondered if murder victim Grace Millane had been “guilty of contributory negligence”.
But then, generational arguments like these have erupted in a thousand New Zealand kitchens and dining rooms since #metoo happened and the boundaries of acceptable speech and behaviour changed. We’re living through a painful and fast-moving time. The larger backdrop to the times has been the gaslighting at a global level, and it’s not surprising that Grimshaw’s interest in Donald Trump’s manipulation of reality has run in parallel with her excavations of family history. In “The Black Monk”, the fascinating Newsroom short story that anticipated this book, the father is soft on Ivanka Trump and finds Hillary Clinton unattractive. “The Black Monk” was just one of a series of cryptic comments and teasing revelations that have trickled out from Grimshaw and been greeted by bemusement by Stead. With The Mirror Book, that trickle has become a flood.
There will be readers who will enjoy it all as gossip, just as there will also be some who have waited decades to see Stead get his comeuppance
On one hand, this is simply quality literary gossip, in which a once-dutiful daughter stops toeing the line and tells the world that life in Tohunga Crescent, Parnell, was not as idyllic as the newspaper profiles suggested, although it must be stressed that while Stead may have retrograde attitudes about sexual politics, no crimes of the Allen or Weinstein variety are alleged. There will be readers who will enjoy it all as gossip, just as there will also be some who have waited decades to see Stead get his comeuppance, given that he has dished it out a few times himself. How good that it has come from someone so skilled and so close to home, they will think.
This is The Mirror Book you are hearing a lot about: the explosive story of how the daughter denounced the father, Sylvia Plath-style. (And, like Plath, she denounced the mother too.) But that’s only part of it. There is a less sensational memoir woven through it that is a story of a lonely and neglected adolescence. Like many children of liberal parents, the young Grimshaw was unsupervised. It was the kind of childhood we hear so much about, often nostalgically: kids could go where they wanted without the nanny state insisting on bike helmets. But there was a darker side that we forget. As a teenager, she roamed free. She suggests that Kay’s lack of boundaries and control led to a sexual assault when she was 13, after a man in his 40s took an unhealthy interest in her. When Grimshaw showed Kay the man’s love letters, Kay didn’t do anything about it and wasn’t at all alarmed, she reports. Yet it also seems odd that Grimshaw passes over an obviously traumatic event in a couple of paragraphs and moves on. It is especially puzzling in a book that otherwise returns again and again to particular moments and precise recollections of conversations, with an almost obsessive focus.
The quiet and unmoored teenager that Grimshaw describes comes to seem damaged in ways that may still not be as obvious to the writer as they are to the reader. She descends further, roaming the city at night with a friend who is killed in a hit and run. It’s another shattering event. She hangs out with prostitutes and street kids, she spends nights in the cells and makes court appearances. She lives with a charming but abusive older man and ends up alone in a flat on the roof of an abandoned Queen St office block. This is rock bottom: “I yearned for safety, for human warmth and touch, and I didn’t know where or how to find it. Along with the terror was helpless amazement, that I’d got myself into this bizarre situation, marooned on top of a pile of condemned concrete, above a labyrinth of dead rooms, with no sure way to shut myself off, to be safe. But this is how it goes; when things go wrong it’s a cascade. One disaster leads to another. Once you’re vulnerable, circumstances get crueller.”
It’s sad and eerie, this sense of being stranded and lost in a vast city. These are the most powerful sections of The Mirror Book, because they so closely relate to Grimshaw’s remarkable run of novels and short stories. There is a question they say a writer should never be asked, which is where their ideas come from. But Grimshaw pulls back the curtain on her fiction, revealing the genesis of important incidents as well as the wider, unsettling environment her work inhabits. Her books are strikingly original portraits of Auckland that show how easy it is for very different worlds to interact and overlap: broadly, the world of crime and the world of respectability. These worlds are not as separate as you think; you can slip from one to the other. The books hint at a secret knowledge of how the city operates.
Her fiction has included people who seem like versions of John Key, Kim Dotcom, Joe Karam and John Campbell, and revealed something important about …the kind of place that Auckland has become
Characters rub shoulders with those clearly modelled on figures from real life; her fiction has included people who seem like versions of John Key, Kim Dotcom, Joe Karam and John Campbell, but without being satirical. Instead, the fiction has revealed something important about our times and our values, about the kind of place that Auckland has become and the kind of people who live there. She created a world that mirrored our own and studiously mapped it out and populated it. She says that Balzac was a model then, just as the “savage family truths” related in depth by Karl Ove Knausgaard have been more influential recently, for better or worse.
The fictional has seeped into the real over time and vice versa, growing ever more complex and interconnected with each book. Now we can see how much Grimshaw’s fiction, her imaginary Auckland, her mirror city, owes to the ways her own life has been lived. After her crises, she set out to rebuild herself, to create a new, respectable self. She imposed Stead-like order on the chaos and darkness that had surrounded her. She created a family, a career. She diligently read, in preparation to write. But in novels such as The Night Book, she also shows how easily such order can crumble.
The protagonists of subsequent novels Starlight Peninsula and Mazarine now appear even more like weirdly self-revealing variations on Grimshaw herself. Their calm, tidy houses seem empty and somehow haunted. They struggle with failed marriages and confront a growing sense of paranoia, isolation and self-doubt. Frances’ sessions with therapists parallel the hugely rewarding sessions that Grimshaw describes in The Mirror Book. Just as Kay stopped talking to Grimshaw, the invented writer Frances Sinclair in Mazarine is estranged from her mother, and the father is literally a judge, in “a family ruled by a subtle tyranny”.
To read The Mirror Book is to feel that fiction has finally stepped through the looking glass and emerged as fact, with all the bravery and all the difficulty that suggests. Where Grimshaw’s fiction can go after this book has both cleared the air and related the backstory is anyone’s guess.
The Mirror Book by Charlotte Grimshaw (VIntage, $38) is available in bookstores nationwide. The review concludes our week-long coverage of the book. On Monday, we published an extract; on Tuesday, a reflection by Steve Braunias; and on Wednesday, Charlotte Grimshaw wrote exclusively for ReadingRoom.