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Charlotte Grimshaw: Foreign City

Grimshaw’s third novel has not been published in the UK or the US (though you can get an ebook of it) which is rather surprising, given that some of her others books have been published in the UK and the US and her latest novel, Soon, is scheduled for publication in the UK. It is a pity because it really is a fine novel, even if it could, perhaps, have been cut a bit. The first part tells the story of Anna Devine. She is a New Zealand painter currently living in London with her husband, Damien, and her children Harry (aged five) and Lucy, known as El (aged three). Damien works for an advertising agency where he is not very well paid, while Anna paints. She has not sold any paintings in London but is continuing with her paintings. She does not paint people but fictitious animals and landscapes, focusing on gradations of light and shade. While she is painting, she leaves the children with a babysitter, Tahsina. At the beginning of the novel she has found a large flat in the area between Grays Inn Road and Tottenham Court Road, which is not too expensive and will be ideal for the family. The owner is on assignment in Hong Kong for two years. There is not much furniture but they decide to take it and move in.

We gradually learn about her past life. In particular, her brother Julian had come to London with his best friend, Robert Mark. They had learned that Julian had died (we do not know how or why) and Robert seems to have disappeared. He did not come to the funeral, back in New Zealand, and had not been in contact with either his parents or Anna’s family since Julian’s death. Anna receives a phone call from Robert’s mother, just before they move, asking her to track Robert down. Anna is reluctant to do so, feeling very bitter towards Robert. However, soon after they move, he appears. She is so upset with him that she berates him publicly in the street and he disappears. She then decides to track him down and goes to the bar where his mother said he worked. She does not find him but does find a Turkish woman, who says that Robert has planned to marry her and that he has disappeared for the past three days. She gives him a possible address. Eventually she goes to that address, where she finds an unpleasant man who denies any knowledge of Robert, though Anna thinks he is lying. She eventually does track him down at the bar, where she eventually learns the circumstances of Julian’s death and a guilty secret about his past. Meanwhile, she has met her new neighbour, Robert Henderson, a writer. She and Robert have a fling, despite the fact that he has a girlfriend, Tina, and that Anna claims she loves Damien. She even considers leaving Damien for Robert.

Then, suddenly, without a great deal of conclusion about this situation, we have moved quite a bit ahead to what seems to be a different set of characters, this time living in Auckland. Justine Devantier has just discovered a secret trunk, belonging to her live-in boyfriend, John Dice. She breaks it open and finds letters from a dozen girlfriends. She is furious and moves out. We learn that her mother is the famous painter, Aniela Devantier, and we soon learn that Aniela Devantier is, in fact, Anna Devine. We also learn that she had left Damien (and Harry and Lucy). Damien had remarried and moved to Spain with Harry and Lucy. Anna/Aniela had had another child, Justine, and returned to New Zealand. Aniela will not say who Justine’s father is but Justine suspects that it is an English writer, Richard Black, who we suspect may be Richard Henderson. Richard has written several books, including London Two, about an alternative London, and also a book called Foreign City. We get excerpts from Foreign City, about a young man, Stephen, a former police officer, who becomes obsessed with a woman called Catherine Costil, who is the nanny for a rich man called Katkov. Stephen has several careers but ends up going to a foreign city to find Catherine. We also follow Justine’s life. She is a kleptomaniac. Indeed, she met John Dice by stealing his wallet and then ‘returning’ it. Her researches into her half-brother and -sister as well as Richard Black form much of this part of the novel.

It certainly is a complex book but very rewarding, once you have entangled who is who and what they are doing. I have only touched on the basic plot but there are various sub-plots as well which, in some cases, lead to nothing. However, the whole is beautifully inventive. Anna does feel very much in a foreign city while in London, not so much alienated in the more conventional novelistic way but just that London is something very foreign to her, where the habits and customs are something that she finds difficulty in adapting to. Clearly, as we can see in the second part, she feels far more comfortable at home in New Zealand, though she is not nearly an important character in this part as her youngest daughter is. It is a pity that no UK or US publisher has taken this one but you can get it as an ebook at least.

Publishing history

First published 2005 by Vintage