“I look through all the photos and they’re all really bad – poorly framed, bad lighting, someone about to fall over – like all our family photos are.” Greta & Valdin is about the extended Vladisavljevic family, and, as depicted in their family photo album, the family members are chaotic and haphazard – but they are also totally enthralling. The central focus is on Greta and Valdin, siblings and flatmates – Betty, their mother, is Māori from Aotea / Great Barrier Island, Linsh, their father, is Russian from Moldova when it was a Soviet republic. Valdin and Greta are striking, insecure, and staunch – and both are looking for love.
Valdin has OCD, is accident prone, and he didn’t speak for much of his childhood. He was a physicist for 7 years, until he had a breakdown over the ending of his relationship with Xabi, his uncle’s husband’s brother – or maybe his relationship foundered when he had a breakdown over not wanting to work as a physicist anymore. He is now the frontman for a TV show, and getting a name for his outspoken ad-libbing. He still loves Xabi.
Greta is tutoring at Auckland University, where Valdin worked in the physics lab, and where Linsh is a professor. She relishes the idiosyncrasies of language and custom and is multi-lingual. She is finishing her literature Masters, and is floundering in the romantic doldrums. She hazards online dating, and then thinks she might have met the love of her life in Ell, a woman she first became aware of when a friend at a party described a woman she has just walked in on in the loo as “your type”.
Greta and Valdin learn of aspects of their family history and heritage at the same time as the reader, and also pick up on the present goings on amongst family members. They know how lucky they are to be part of their family, they know that despite how lonely and desperate they get, there will always be someone they can eventually talk to. The Vladisavljevics are liberal, flawed, and kind. “Being gay used to be fun. And illegal and dangerous. Now it’s just about being romantic and sad.” But the siblings are not naïve – they know that elsewhere – in their family history and in their present relationships – homophobia tears families apart.
The siblings are both tall and attractive, so Greta is assumed to be bi-, as being attractive means attractive to men, Valdin is just assumed to be gay – they recognise sexism. And they are well aware of how racist Aotearoa can be. Homophobia, sexism, racism – none of these social issues are pushed in the novel, they are just there as realities; Betty calmly saying “He didn’t have the fear that I had that someone would take my baby away because of my race”. Betty and Linsh’s relationships with their children are extremely gratifying. Through the novel, all of the family members are growing and changing and finding out things about one another – and introducing more fascinating people into the fold.
There is a handy list of characters at the beginning of the book, that I made use of quite frequently – it reads like the cast of characters in a Russian novel. Names are full of the history of place, and the Vladisavljevic family have friends and relatives who travel freely around the world. “Almost every place I go in the world is nicer than I expect. Stupid Western media.” The only characters whose names are constantly forgotten, are the Anglo ones: “… there’s no way I’m going to remember Kieren.” Despite their eclectic family, both Greta and Valdin express a strong identity with Aotearoa – Greta grumbling about unnecessary American perspectives on New Zealand life and literature; Valdin using his TV show to point out what he sees as inappropriate and ignorant land use.
There is a lovely generosity about the book, identity is a broad capture. Valdin is taken aback before boarding a plane to Queenstown when his crew ask him if he wants to lead them in a karakia, he does know that Russians sit down before leaving on a trip. Linsh forgets that, being of Jewish heritage, he shouldn’t be eating bacon. Greta is worried that Te Reo might be the one language she can’t pick up with ease. The Vladisavljevics are imperfect but centred. they are open and honest about their mistakes. Casper the elder brother on raising his children: “… we love them, and we don’t let them go hungry, so it’s fine.”
Greta & Valdin is written in the first person, alternating between Valdin and Greta, with a few other characters chiming in at the end. It is well-plotted and has a solid and funny sense of place. It has a pleasant dramatic arc, and a tidy ending. But honestly I could have happily read the novel if it were just the characters sitting around talking – they are that fascinating. “It’s like when my dad tells a story that relies on the listener understanding the concept of local informants, or when my mum tells a story and you really have to hold seafood in a high regard to get it”, Reilly has presented us with a complex and oddly intertwining array of characters who are all unknown but who all feel familiar. And we get a hint of their future directions too, with members of the next generation making appearances. A sequel would be very welcome, I would love to eavesdrop on the first meeting of Freya and Ernesto – read this wonderful book to find out who they are!