Monday Wooldridge is talking to her little brother, Eddy, who disappeared and never returned 15 years ago. She tells him about her life since he left. Their father decided to depart, their mother sort of did too. Monday became a fighter: “Fighting was the only thing I was ever good at”. She fights for money, to hurt other people to vent her anger, to hurt herself to numb her guilt. It isn’t a pretty story. The reader constantly wonders if it would have been a different story had Eddy been a part of it.
Poor People With Money is in three sections. In the first section Monday manages a bar in Auckland, and she fights. She takes on a roommate, JJ. JJ “understood what the universe was made of, but used to act like leaving the house was climbing Everest”. He is a recluse, spending most of his time on his computer, researching the science of ghosts. Monday doesn’t co-exist with rich people; people like her and JJ live in a parallel dimension from “people with so much money it was like a disability”.
When Monday needs more money than she can raise at the bar and from fighting, she comes up with a scheme and drags a reluctant JJ in as an accomplice. Things go well, things don’t go so well. “Everyone believes things will be as they are forever. The good and the bad. As if time is a rock pool rather than a fucking tidal wave”. When events get beyond Monday fighting her way out, she and JJ take off.
The second section of Poor People With Money is set in the tiny village that was once home for JJ. A place “where time moved slow and nobody gave a fuck about anything except what they loved”. Monday and JJ move into a shack on the property of JJ’s dad Tahi, his partner Frances, JJ’s sister Hope and his half-sister Aroha. Hope wants to be the next Parris Goebel. Aroha has visions of the future. Monday keeps finding out she hasn’t yet witnessed the deepest level of poverty.
“We never talked about you, Eddy. Dad wasn’t that kind of man, Mum was never awake, and I kept myself busy with violence.” Monday can never really relax, it’s hard to know who to trust, she’d trust Eddy, but he’s long gone. You know people better once they’ve gone “So much easier to figure someone out when they’re standing still in your memories”. A small mistake increases the sense of impending doom: “Black clouds were rolling in. I lay on my back for a while watching them spread over the blue sky, like blood over lino”.
The third section of the novel has growing momentum as Monday’s story plays out. The telling is tense and cruel, but you can’t help but root for Monday. There is a clarity to the writing that doesn’t allow judgement, the characters are just what they are, because of who they are and their histories. The reader wonders how different they might have been in a different timeline, but is also acutely aware that their lives are the only one they’ve got: “Being smart without opportunity is fucking cruel”.
When an extreme storm hits the village, it destroys homes of those with money as well as of those without. The reader feels everyone is locked into their roles, and escape is managed by a very few. Poor People With Money is a stark and compelling read. It deals with social inequality and the blurry line between right and wrong, and touches on the effects of land disputes, pollution, and climate change on rural communities. But mostly it’s about Monday Wooldridge, and I could happily have carried on reading and reading, until things turned out right for her and she could relax for a bit. Highly recommended.