This is so refreshing for a New Zealand book—hooray for getting away from the cliché that all kiwis are boring monoglot parochials. Here’s a great new cast of characters, a whole blended extended Vladisavljevic whanau of Russian, Māori, Catalans, some other eastern Europeans I think – Romanian? There’s a complicated relationship with this lot, academics and students at Auckland Uni woven around the main unit of Greta and her brother Valdin, who are our storytellers. I’ve never met people like them but wish I had. The dinner time conversations are epic. ‘The first time I brought you round to my parents’ house I told everyone to act like regular people and V threw the remote out the window so no one could change the channel from Eurovision and a squid had exploded on my dad at work.’ There’s a confusing series of relationships across the group, bi, straight and gay—an uncle’s husband’s brother is the boyfriend of Valdin and a brother-in-law’s husband a straight ex-lover (ex?). I had to draw a curly family tree to get it straight. Like life. It’s complicated.
The great things is that none of this matters to anyone and everyone across three generations is accepted. They’ve all got their quirks and their issues but the fam, as a whole, is supportive and loving. And funny. Sometimes smart funny, with witty asides and observations, sometimes slapstick funny when Greta or Valdin try not to look foolish and overreact.
‘No one in our family has ever had a physical fight before, unless you count a revolutionary game called Worm War 3 that involved a sleeping bag, stairs and wrestling. It faced a quick ban, passed under urgency, after my parents had to be called home from the theatre because all three of us ended up trapped with our arms and legs stuck through the bannister. We screamed until a neighbour came over.’
Greta and Valdin are similar and different as siblings often are: Greta is our assertive and gregarious social commentator and lets us see her vulnerability infrequently. Valdin is just vulnerable—his brainy awkwardness scoring him a spot as a TV presenter where he doesn’t mean to be funny but is, endearingly so. Both are obsessed with detail, Greta for clothing and style (green tiles in a bathroom were the colour of an alligator in a picture book), Valdin for structure.
Dad is a refugee. He tells Greta, ‘My parents met as drunk teenagers on a train and had their passports stolen and got stuck in the Moldavian SSR‘. It’s the best father/daughter talk ever. He tells how he met her mother, ‘I got drunk and put my head on her lap and performed a monologue in Romanian’. Beatrice, the mother, is sophisticated and cool. She is the Māori side of the family. She gardens in a green dress with wide straps and a square neckline. She has her secrets, she is not such an open character as the others, harder to fathom.
After a few tortured attempts to find love, Greta meets Ell. I like this girl straight away. She’s very Scottish. ‘She has a very good voice. It reminded me of one of those races where you roll cheese down a hill, but if all the cheese had melted and it was running into my ears.’ For Valdin love is not so straight forward. He is trying to get over Xabi who has left their difficult relationship and gone to Colombia and plans to adopt a child.
This book is complicated all the way through, the story, the characters, the descriptions, but in a good way. All of it is interesting, and these people feel believable—they’re living lives outside of anything I’m familiar with in New Zealand, but I’m happy to believe they exist, folded somewhere into the cosmopolitan city of Auckland.