King Rich by Joe Bennett – 2015

It is a little surprising that it has taken so long for the 2011 Christchurch earthquake to appear in literature – but I am glad that the first piece set in the aftermath is Joe Bennett’s King Rich.  King-RichIt is not a flawless work but totally engaging, with a bit of a mystery and suspense and dollops of social commentary.  The novel starts with the Rich of the title appearing to be a homeless alcoholic – we meet him in a ritzy hotel he has frequently been thrown out of, trying to help others rescue a woman trapped in a lift by the quake.  Afterward he, and an abandoned dog, takes up residence in the deserted hotel.  Meanwhile Annie is 12,000 miles away in London watching the devastation on TV.  She decides to return to New Zealand to see if she can find her father who abandoned her and her mother 20 years before, and who she thinks might still be living in Christchurch.  The novel alternates between Rich surviving in the hotel and Annie’s quest to find her father.  Bennett describes the geological and architectural devastation of the city, depicting animal life continuing as a nice contrast.  He describes the up-swelling of goodness – the University students rallying to help, the cleaning company operator refusing payment for helping an elderly resident.  And he also refers to the widening rift between the victims of the quake – who have all turned into ‘seisometers’ – and those who, through virtue of their jobs, end up in privileged hi vis vests – and as a resident of Lyttelton he is writing from experience.  But in telling of Annie’s quest and Rich’s story he also describes a City that even without the earthquake was built on social hierarchy and prejudice.  There were some characters I would have liked to read more of – Vince sort of drops out of the narrative, and the depictions of Annie’s mother and of the wives of a friend of her father and of one of his colleagues are a bit thin.  But there is plenty to relish – and the prose is often delightful; I found an early description of Rich in the hotel very moving:  “He stays in the shower till his fingertips shrivel, laving his flesh with random miniatures of gel and shampoo and conditioner.  He towels himself with a deep white fluffiness, sets a gin on the bedside table and slides between the sheets.  The luxury is a cocooning wonder.  Richard could almost cry at its embrace.  The things money can buy. Softness. Comfort. Ease of the flesh.  He is asleep before he can even reach for the gin.”

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