It’s powerful and heartbreaking, but is it a novel or for real?
The front cover of Rosetta Allan’s third novel, Crazy Love, features a Warholesque photograph of a gaunt young man sitting against a concrete wall. On the back cover, we learn he is a fictional character called Billy. In the Acknowledgments, we learn he is also Allan’s husband – “Billy-bold – my James” – and that Allan has mined their relationship to fill the pages in between.
The story opens with Billy contemplating suicide by jumping off the Auckland Harbour Bridge. The year is 2008 and he is clinging to a lamp post, seeking the courage to let go. His wife, fictional narrator Vicki Miller, imagines it is the thought of her that stops him. “The heartbreak of her heartbreak. The disbelief that he’d given up.”
We jump to August 2012, when Vicki pens a letter to the late Prime Minister Robert Muldoon. Muldoon’s name has cropped up in a headline somewhere, reminding Vicki that she’d written to him before, in 1984. That earlier letter lamented her poverty. Muldoon sent her a one dollar note, inviting her to spend it on a hot pie. This memory plunges Vicki and the reader into the heart of Crazy Love.
The story plays out in three parts – Before, During and After. Before is the period between March 1983 and December 1984, when Vicki and Billy meet while living in a dilapidated boarding house in Napier. They eventually run away to Auckland together and marry. During chronicles the period between August and November 2012, during which Billy’s mental health deteriorates to such an extent that he becomes abusive and tyrannical, a constant danger to himself and everyone around him. Finally, there is After: after his committal to an acute mental health unit, after his release and – after that – an eight-year leap forward to post 2020 Covid lockdown.
This is deeply disturbing yet utterly compelling storytelling – an unflinching account of severe mental illness and associated domestic torment. It is also – always – a record of Vicki’s unconditional love for Billy. The form is semi-epistolary – diary notes written not at the time but years later, allowing the narrator the benefit of hindsight. And hindsight is the most surprising revelation in the story. No matter what Billy has thrown at Vicki by way of past abuse – and may well continue to pummel her with in the future – she will not turn her back on him.
Every crime, every act of anger and violence, strengthens her resolve to make their crazy love work. “If he doesn’t stay fixed, I’ll fix him again,” she says, in the final pages of the story. The narrator’s loyalty might be viewed as abuse-trauma by some readers, who’ll want to give Vicki a good talking-to and help her pack her bags once and for all. She makes it clear that they need not bother.
Allan knows how to craft a great simile. “Your name is like reflux,” she says in her second letter to Muldoon. “Your legacy keeps coming up and burning the back of our throats.” The prose has a tough bring-it-on edge to it. Truncated sentences work hard and effectively to capture the mood of the relationship between Vicki and Billy: brutal, passionate, cruel, terrifying. “Whatever”, she says, more than once, shrugging off another disastrous predicament.
Rather than name many of the characters, Allan gives them descriptive nicknames – her ex is loser-boyfriend, a literary agent is crazy-eyebrows. These work at first mention, but become a little unwieldy when repeated throughout the book. I wondered why Allan had not simply given these characters fictitious names, as she did for Vicki and Billy. Might she be encouraging readers to guess the identities of the real people peppered throughout the story? I immediately recognised the literary agent in question; a fictitious name would have protected his identity.
Perhaps the nicknames are associated with calling the book a novel rather than a memoir – a decision I’m also puzzled about, given the strong statements about autobiography and the use of a personal post-wedding photograph of Allan and her husband inside the pages. I’ve tried to work out what has been gained by labelling as fiction this powerful account of a real, enduring love. Anonymity? Not if you’ve already declared that both main characters are, more-or-less, you and your husband, and made it possible to guess the identities of others. The freedom to tinker with the plot? Irrelevant, if your readers believe the story is heavily based on your own experiences. Legal protection perhaps?
Does any of this ultimately matter to the reader? Does it affect the way we read and respond to Crazy Love?
It depends whether or not you do as you’re told, and read it as a novel. I tried that, and found myself distracted by having to imagine where the boundaries were between fact and fiction. Distracted at having to try and guess how much of the disturbing content was real. Many readers will assume that the entire story is true – the narrative tone is identical to that of memoir – and that may well be the case. We just don’t know.
Reading the work as fiction also accentuates a big gap in the narrative in the final third of the book – the many years between Billy’s release from the mental health unit until 2020, post-Covid lockdowns. During this period so much must have happened (fictionally or factually); the absence of any reference to the period, after the intensity of the previous storytelling, feels a little like free fall into a conveniently cushioned post-lockdown landing.
In defiance of authorial direction, then, I’ve chosen to read Crazy Love as memoir. In this context, Rosetta and James’s story evokes a profound and sympathetic reaction. Nothing has changed for these two real people – and that is the point of the book. The chasm in the final third of the book feels more naturaI in memoir, because it’s the memorist’s right to exercise choice over where she shines the spotlight, and where she switches it off. As English poet and memorist Blake Morrison says, “a collage of fragments can be enough”.
Regardless of whether you consider Crazy Love a novel, memoir, or something in between, it’s triumphant; powerfully affecting, searingly honest, heartbreaking and hopeful.
Crazy Love by Rosetta Allan (Penguin Random House, $30) is available in bookstores nationwide.