Politics101, by Anna Smith (Penguin)

 Meg and Henry. Steph and Henry. Diana and Henry. Four students in love and politics circle each other warily in early seventies Wellington. Anna Smith evidently knows Wellington and its student milieu well, and this is apparent not just from the precise locations but from the stew of smells, detritus, damp and conversation that is peculiar to student flats. I flatted there myself in the late eighties, and not much had changed.

Except maybe the politics. One thing this novel makes startlingly clear is how much politics used to be integral to student life. Nowadays the only politics that captures students’ interest is how much interest the politicians are going to capture on their loans. The sixties was an age of innocence that, in the period this novel is set, was just beginning to be overtaken by guile and pragmatism.

Of the four central characters, Henry displays the most guile, and it’s not surprising that, in a flash-forward at the novel’s end, he is the one who has stayed in politics – though the “brilliant” youthful Henry has transformed into a boorish, fat party hack. Everyone seems to think young Henry is “brilliant”, but there’s nothing here to convince the reader of that apart from the books on his bookshelves. He’s also charismatic and charming, a magnetic personality – but again, this is the other characters’ estimation, and the reader is puzzled as one after another, these characters go to bed with him. Henry is unremittingly awful. Even when he gets the chance to put his version of events, he’s awful. No one, ever, would go to bed with him. The lesbian relationships in the novel are much more convincing.

Each character gets a turn to tell the story, and in each retelling, motives are revealed and events reinterpreted. The novel has some great set-pieces, and reaches a climax of sorts at an abortive youth summit at Takaka. Of sorts – the story and its characters are tepid rather than hot, and the unvarying pace of the narrative means things never quite come to the boil. Details are sharply observed, and motifs – gloves, knots – recur and accumulate significance, but all in a fine writing kind of way. And not always fine. “Let me tell you how it happened,” Meg says at one point, and then does the opposite, mixing metaphors in a blender: “How one little thing, small as the knot in the end of a piece of thread, pushed me off my perch, and suddenly I found myself sliding faster and faster down waves as steep as houses …” Shakespeare could take arms against a sea of troubles, but I don’t think even he could make a knot on the end of a piece of string pushy enough to dislodge a grown woman from a perch suspended mysteriously over the ocean.

Throughout this novel I had the sense of a roman à clef; that there were readers other than me who would nod and smile and say “Ah!” as another political figure from those days was brought, lightly fictionalized, to book. Unfortunately I had no clef, and the characters, though fascinating to each other, were less so to me. I found much to like in this novel, but chiefly of an atmospheric kind; in its particulars, its potential is never quite fulfilled.

Christchurch Press

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Tim Tweets