Victory Park by Rachel Kerr
There is an ironic lack of victory to be had at Victory Park, council flats housing a motley crew of those existing on the margins. Here solo mother, Kara, lives with her five-year-old son, Jayden. Eking out a living doing in home child-care Kara crawls out to her uncomfortable, windy, fire escape to smoke once Jadyen is in bed – just to briefly see beyond the confines of her cramped four walls. Kara’s life is uncompromisingly monotone, that is, until moneyed-Bridget and her son move into the flats.
Bridget is everything Kara is not. Married to a disgraced Ponzi schemer, Bridget is a beacon in the darkness – shiny, sexy, and dangerous. The two woman and their children make fast friends, and Kara finds herself spending more and more of her time with Bridget, who, listless after being evicted from her comfortable life and in denial of her husband’s crime, is looking for distraction.
All the characters in this book, even the minor ones, are extremely well written. Kara’s poverty is sharp and painful, but never feels overdone or judgemental. Her life is at times reduced to small calculated choices – the bus fare is weighted up against how many loaves of bread it would cost – but Kerr never reduces Kara to any kind of stereotype. She is sharp and funny; authentic. And we fall in love with her. Which is what makes Bridget’s voyeuristic foray into Kara’s world so heart-breaking. But while it would be too easy to dismiss or simply dislike Bridget, her character is complicated enough that it’s hard not to feel something for her also and we are drawn into her world in much the same way Kara is. Danger is attractive, and the unfolding tension is riveting reading.
Despite all her problems, it’s clear Bridget will never have to truly inhabit the confines of Kara’s world. There is a moment that Kara catches Bridget taking photos of the council flats the way a tourist might, or when Kara takes Bridget to get food in a food bank and she turns her nose up at the baked beans. Her privilege makes her careless, blasé. She abandons Jayden more than once, simply forgetting about him and risking his life. Kara almost loses her job when the parents of the children she looks after are filmed on the news, with the journalists trying to get close to Bridget. This seems like a reasonable request, and yet, after a lifetime of people telling her what to do, treating her as if what she wants doesn’t really matter, Kara can’t let the friendship go. In the second half the tension ramps up and I found myself reading with fingers crossed, hoping for Kara to somehow get through intact. At the climax, both Bridget and Kara end up in hospital. True to their characters, Bridget’s hospital stay is self-inflicted, while Kara’s is the result of gallantly trying to look after both children until she finally collapses, succumbing to the pneumonia foreshadowed by the persistent cough she’s not been able to afford to see a doctor about.
‘Victory Park’ is Wellington writer, Rachel Kerr’s, first novel. Released by Mākaro Press, the publisher behind last year’s award-winning, Auē by Becky Manawatu, I imagine this novel will also do well. The writing is rich and carefully crafted, the pacing never misses a step.
While the ending has a quiet undertone of hope, I found myself desperately wishing for more – an epilogue – just something to tell me Kara was truly okay. ‘Victory Park’ is a story that lingers, long after the final page. An impressive debut.
Reviewer: Heidi North