Paddy Richardson reviews the new novel by the masterful Stephanie Johnson

In the latest novel by Stephanie Johnson, the Seabrook family are transforming their lives. And what could be more transformational than exchanging the Auckland home you’ve lived in for the past 30 years for a crumbling sprawl of motel units on a hillside in Northland? “And there it is, our new home, coming into view as we climb the steep corner and take the right-hand turn.”

The aim is to turn this grimy, rickety, mould-and-mice-stinking horror into Skyreader’s Retreat, a haven for those wearied by the stresses and tribulations of city life. No WIFI, television or radio. Guests will be encouraged to leave their phones at reception. There will be wine, cream, meat and butter. And books. Thousands of books to excite and invigorate, to inspire and to soothe.

But the reality of them uniting to create a retreat is rather like Davy Seabrook covering up the asbestos garage walls with his free-standing book-cases: “I can’t be banging nails into asbestos.” And the zillions of books purchased from Trade-Me, book-fairs, book-shops gone bust and deceased estates are not, shall we say, in the best condition.

Nor are Col and Davy Seabrook. “Thirty-three fucking tumultuous years,” reminisces Col. Still, despite the life and death of their disabled son and the following years of grief partially eased by too much alcohol and weed, their marriage has survived these thirty-three years. Love? Habit? Sheer doggedness?  Perhaps a combination of all three. Their pregnant daughter, Liv, back from LA, is there with them as well, more out of a need for support for herself and the coming baby, than affection.

Col, Davy, Liv; all of them battered, disappointed but not without hope; Col, desperately optimistic, Davy going along with it, trying to keep that anger under control and Liv, tough, bitter, sometimes unbelievably callous. Then there is Muzza, the dog, which is partially responsible for the move. “Not many people move house because the dog killed the neighbour’s cat.”

These may not be the most likeable characters but they are certainly fascinating and engaging;  Stephanie Johnson is at her best as she reveals them in all their sad, funny, awful humanity. Add into the mix, Choirmaster, the 17-year-old from next door, presently on home detention, employed to help Davy with the renovations. And then come the first guests; the anorexic girl with the helicopter mother, the rich and famous writer of the wildly popular series who intends his retreat to be rather more permanent than expected.

“…Beautifully written with evocative descriptions of the landscape which holds them in all the chaos”

Johnson takes a risk with both character and point of view. I was at first unsure of the wisdom of the brisk chapter changes from character to character and the use of first person for each character but she manages it beautifully. The pace rockets along with the reader caught up in the fast-moving, always surprising narrative.  At the same time this choice of point of view slowly reveals the truth and nuances of character. For example, at the beginning of the novel I was a little taken aback by Liv’s careless cruelty but as the novel progresses, through Johnson’s skillful use of internal dialogue and memory, we experience glimpses of the childhood and young adulthood which has created the tough layers of self-protection with which she defends herself. Liv is possibly the least likeable character but she is the most complex. While the secret of her baby’s conception is shockingly violent, her determination to wrest anorexic Julia away from her mother and look after and ‘cure’ her suggests her capacity for love, as does her immediate bonding with her baby.

While there is violence, death and grimness, the novel also offers transformation and hope. Choirboy, in contrast to Liv, and in spite of his difficult background, provides insight, sensitivity and optimism while Muzza/ Kaos the dog gives his own kind and bewildered perspective on the lives of these astonishing humans.

I loved the book. It’s beautifully written with evocative descriptions of the landscape which holds them in all the chaos. It is funny and clever and sad. The pace takes you up and spins you along, while, at the same time you are caught up in the cataclysmic lives of those of us living in the 21st Century. Perhaps it will be all right. Perhaps they will be able to “regroup, rethink and start again.” Perhaps, after all, this place of hill and heavy bush and clouds is “where we all belong.”

Everything Changes by Stephanie Johnson (Vintage, Penguin Random House, $30) is available in bookstores nationwide.

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