Sunday, October 18, 2015

King Rich - Joe Bennett (Harper Collins)

The haunting story of two people linked by disaster and a desire for the truth, set amid the physical and emotional devastation of a post-earthquake Christchurch.  It's a love story.  Of sorts.
"At dusk he lights the candelabrum, creating an island of light in the centre of the room, animating the faces of the two dressed mannequins, glinting off the cutlery, the long array of glasses, the cellophane wrappers on the biscuits, the chocolate's silver foil. And the margins of the room are lost in the murk, might as well not exist. Richard smiles at the effect, at the little oasis of festivity and commemoration in a wide dark world."
Christchurch, days after the February 2011 earthquake. Richard hides, with a lost dog, in an abandoned, leaning hotel. Annie returns from England, seeking a lost father in her battered home town. Vince relives the most significant emotional experience of his life. What binds these lives together, and what tore them apart?  The novel traces two reasons of existence, as it were; Rich's plight to stay undetected in the hotel and Annie's quest to find him.  A stray labelled 'Friday' is Rich's canine companion.  Annie recruits friends and a growing list of her dad's mates and in so doing begins to understand who her father was.  Now, it's no Sherlock who'll reveal that Rich isn't  Annie's father. Not the point.  That's obvious from the get go.  But what drives this narrative.  Why the f***k is Rich here at all?  That's the eternal, frustrating question. 

On RNZ's "The Panel" Joe Bennett refuses to reveal the specific reasons why Rich is there or exactly what the inspiration and purpose of all his is.  He likes the idea of displacement and how we handle that.  As a man who lives in a house that's been condemned in Christchurch he knows all about the threat of displacement.  And we know him; from his columns in the DomPost and his radio presence.  He has a, how do I put it, confronting turn of a phrase.  In King Rich his characters are obvious, and hilarious for it.  Take the toilet cleaning company, "Cleaner Butts" run by a 'Mr Butts' of course!  Very droll.  Not.  There's a great line in the book, on Rich's hotel bathrobe, which he swans around in, like a robe of coronet snobbery: it "reveals the sternum, sown with scrubby hair, like bleached bad lands".  A bit 'waffleee', but there you go.  Former teacher Mr Bennett is at his best when describing real events, like HRH Wills and his Kate at a Hagley Park service, and of course, real places, like the Christchurch suburbs in the aftermath of the quake - those ghosts that float about the subsiding rubble.   But where he's less sure is when he's building his characters and their motivation.  It drove me nuts thing "Why these people behave the way they do?"  Having a significant natural event is not enough.  I need a backstory.  Bennett, you bastard, you've strung me along!


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