Welcome to another special edition of In The Spotlight. As we continue our exploration of this year’s four finalists for the inaugural Ngaio Marsh Award for Best First Novel, let’s take a close look at Jen Shieff’s historical novel, The Gentlemen’s Club. Let’s turn the spotlight on 1950s Auckland.
Rita Saunders is a successful hairstylist who also runs a gentlemen’s club – a not-very-well-disguised brothel. Things are going well for her, although she does feel the lack of a partner. But everything changes when a ship from England docks. One of the people on board that ship is Istvan Zieglar, a refugee from Hungary who wants more from life than a spot in a Displaced Person’s camp (more about him shortly). Another is Fenella Grayson, who is English. She’s brought with her three orphaned girls who are to be placed at Brodie House, an orphanage that’s directed by a man named Lindsay Pitcaithly. It’s hoped that adoptive families will soon be found for them, and that they’ll thrive in New Zealand. The orphans settle in, and Fenella begins looking for work. Her mother, Rachel, is from Auckland, so Fenella’s already got some contacts.
For his part, Istvan, too, settles in. He’s going to be helping to build a new bridge over Auckland Harbour, and is eager to get started and begin to save money. He takes a room in a cheap hotel and gets ready to report for work. One day, he hears a young woman in the adjoining room. She’s in obvious serious distress, and he goes in to help her. She is sixteen-year-old Judith Curran, who has come to Auckland to have a (then illegal) abortion. It’s all been arranged by Pitcaithly, who has paid for her abortion in exchange for her agreeing to work in his home as domestic help. The abortion has just been carried out, and Judith is in serious danger of infection or worse. Istvan sees that she needs help, and stays with her, nursing her as best he can, until she’s able to leave.
Little by little, and each in a different way, Istvan, Judith and Rita become aware that something sinister is going on at Brodie House, and that Pitcaithly is not all that he seems to be. But he is a powerful person, and each of them is vulnerable for different reasons. As they work to find a way to prove their suspicions, they learn that there’s more to this case than it appears on the surface. If they’re going to be successful, they’re going to have to work together and be willing to take considerable risks.
Most of the novel takes place in Auckland, and Shieff places the reader there clearly. We see the growing city through several pairs of eyes, too. There’s Istvan, for whom the city is a place to start a whole new life. And, for the most part, he’s allowed to pursue that dream. In that sense, Auckland is depicted as more or less welcoming to immigrants. From Judith’s perspective, it’s a place to escape from her own unpleasant family situation and have her own life. And Rita’s known the city always. She knows both its good side and its seamy underbelly, and still loves the place. Readers who enjoy finding out about a city’s history will appreciate these different points of view about Auckland.
Point of view in its larger sense also plays an important role in the novel. We see the events through several pairs of eyes, including Istvan’s, Judith’s, Rita’s, Lindsay’s, and other characters (all in third person, past tense). Sometimes, the same event is described from more than one perspective. Readers who prefer only one point of view will notice this. That said, though, Shieff makes it clear whose story is being told at any given point.
Another important element in this story is its timeline. While the story is told in a more or less chronological way, the timeline does occasionally move back and forth, so as to ‘fill in a blank’ for readers. Shieff makes those time shifts obvious, so that readers know when different events happen, but readers who prefer just one continuous timeline will notice this.
The novel draws together the fortunes of three people: Rita, Istvan and Judith. Their interactions, and those they have with others, are central to the story. So the element of character figures strongly in the novel. We learn about each person’s backstory (and their pasts do matter), and we see the events that draw them together. Each one of them has to summon reserves of courage as they go up against some real danger. And I can say without spoiling the story that all of them do. Readers who prefer strong female characters will appreciate that, as will readers who prefer immigrants to be depicted as other than victims.
The dangers that these characters have to confront add an element of suspense to the story. But readers who dislike a lot of violence will be pleased to know that this isn’t really a violent story. It’s more suggested than described, if I can put it that way. That said, though, what is hinted at (and in a few places, made clear) is truly ugly, so readers who prefer light mysteries will want to know this.
The novel has been described as ‘gritty,’ and in some ways it is. Some of the characters turn out not to be what they seem on the surface. And others allow certain things to happen, although they know what’s going on. In that sense, this isn’t a happy story. But it’s not all ‘doom and gloom.’ Some of the characters turn out to have real integrity.
The Gentlemen’s Club is the story of some awful things going on just beneath 1950’s Auckland’s thriving, welcoming surface. It takes place in a distinctive setting and context, and features three courageous characters who are trying their best to make things right. But what’s your view? Have you read The Gentlemen’s Club? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 24 October/Tuesday, 25 October – The Fixer – John Daniell
Monday, 31 October/Tuesday, 1 November – Twister – Jane Woodham
Monday, 7 November/Tuesday, 8 November – Montana 1948 – Larry Watson