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The Last Letter of Godfrey Cheathem by Luke Elworthy


In this humorous and inventive literary novel, we learn about the life of Godfrey Cheathem mainly through a series of letters that Godfrey writes to his younger sister while he is incarcerated in Paparua prison for a crime that is only revealed at the end of the novel.


Godfrey is born into a complicated family that values the arts above most other things in life. As his younger siblings make their name in theatre, music and arts, he abandons his mother’s wish to do experimental pottery to eventually work in international book publishing instead. Godfrey has enviable success in publishing while in London and meets his wife, who goes from cookbook stylist to successful novelist of trashy novels. But then he meets the mysterious Artist, and Godfrey’s publishing dreams unravel spectacularly. Returning to New Zealand, his life unravels even further at the Cheathem family reunion at the farm that has been in the wider family for many years.


This only gives the barest of hints at the escapades in this multi-layered novel that explores many serious themes in a tongue-in-cheek way in a book that is in many ways a variant of a misery memoir. Luke Elworthy explores the complex family relationships in this fictional family, questions of belonging, and the different ways to live fulfilled creative lives. I particularly enjoyed how the author explored the element of editors chasing ‘The Next Big Thing’ in book publishing to comic effect.


Interestingly, the fictional character Godfrey Cheathem has inspired and lent his name to the real-life Godfrey Cheathem Arts Residency in Marlborough, a programme for visiting artists and writers to spend time living and working in a house and studio space on a Marlborough vineyard.


The Last Letter of Godfrey Cheathem is a well-written, highly original literary novel that is humorous, engaging and thought-provoking.


Reviewer: Karen McMillan

The Wairau Diversion