1. A complete character. The Invisible Rider has an interesting structure—a discontinuous narrative. But what I love most is the central character, Philip Fetch. He’s completely believable--utterly caught in the adult spiderweb of kids, work, wife, unformed hopes, and a troubled heart. Kirsten has said he was developed in a character workshop run by Elizabeth and Sara Knox. I admire the work that’s been put into building this character—it glued me right into the book.
2. Small but important. One of my favourite chapters is ‘Laughing Stock’. The prospect of a party at a society friend’s house fills Philip with dread. But he trundles along for his wife’s sake, and bravely attempts conversation with a politician and his self-regarding friends. His key anecdote is a flop, and creeping death ensues. But Philip doesn’t slink off. Instead he calls the politician on his selfishness. ‘And you know what? I and my little office will never vote for you and your self-serving little ideas.’
Philip’s journey is peppered with such moments of small bravery. They are sometimes funny but always important, because they reflect Philip’s pragmatic but sound system of ethics. For example, the wonderful moment when he stands up to an abusive football dad:
[The man] looked away from Philip and did a little snort. ‘Fuck-knuckle.’
Philip held his whistle up. ‘That,’ he said, ‘is not a word.’
3. All I feel is an urge to die sooner. But the episode I most admire is ‘Love’, in which Philip is asked to facilitate the divorce of the local greengrocer, Dennis, who has gradually lost contact with his desired life. Unlike the unscrupled host of the earlier chapter, Philip refuses to opt for what is expedient. Instead, he determines that the divorce mustn’t go ahead, and encourages the couple to talk to each other: ‘You might just need some time alone together. Children are truly wonderful, but they do make your life complicated. And with running the shop as well …’
Ironically, his perspective just depresses Dennis even more: ‘In the face of your relentless optimism, all I feel is an urge to die sooner.’ Finally Philip closes the door on them, shutting himself out of his own office in order to rescue their marriage.
Perhaps this is what makes Philip so easy to identify with. He seems like so many of the well-meaning, harried people we know from real life—exhausted by kids and work and all the things that get too complex, and by the sense of life escaping him, but still making an effort to do things right, and to make life a small bit better for his family and the people he works with.
And Ten More Favourite Books
And here are ten more favourites that I've read this year, but haven't had time to write about.
1. Crime, Ferdinand Von Shirach (2009)
Precise and incisive tales of crimes motivated, mostly, by twisted-up love. ‘The Ethiopian’ is a story to work a jaded heart. For me, Crime is a lot better than the second book, Guilt.
2. White Fang, Jack London (1906)
I was amazed at how effectively Jack London suggests the experience of a wolf. Interestingly, it’s nowhere near as convincing when the human characters speak.
3. Somebody Loves Us All, Damien Wilkins (2010)
My favourite Wilkins book. To me it seems the most accessible and tender so far, but still it includes some daring bits, like that long narrative detour on bikes in the centre of the book. I admire the risks that Wilkins takes—for example, in the most recent collection of short pieces, To Whom It May Concern, and in the novel about Thomas Hardy that's coming out shortly, excerpted in Sport 40 this year.
4. Their Faces Were Shining, Tim Wilson (2010)
5. The Desolation Angel, Tim Wilson (2011)
His narrative ideas are striking—the Rapture, the creep of kikuyu grass, a home-invading angel of desolation—but what I like most is his ability to convey despair subtly, as a by-product of an engaging narrative.
6. The Road, Cormac McCarthy (2006)
I read the print version twice, then listened to the audio book two and a half times more. Boy is it gripping.
7. The Angel’s Cut, Elizabeth Knox (2009)
Welcome back, Xas. I found the last half of this book particularly magnetic.
8. The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane (1895)
Civil war, adventure, and a deep study of a character under stress. Yay. My kind of book.
9. Soon, Charlotte Grimshaw (2012)
Grimshaw is a real expert. In Soon it’s impressive how she intrigues us in the lives of characters who can be very difficult to like. There’s also the matter of a politically inexpedient murder, which I thought was cleverly managed.
10. Rangatira, Paula Morris (2011)
Funny and gripping. I was surprised at the light touch this managed to bring to a big, unusual story about Paratene Te Manu, a rangatira of Ngāti Wai.