Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 20, 2019

Mazarine (2018), by Charlotte Grimshaw

Charlotte Grimshaw (b.1968) is one of the most high profile authors in New Zealand.  While she has yet to win a major award outside New Zealand, her books are reviewed internationally and she has been nominated for and won numerous awards at home.  I disliked the widely acclaimed Opportunity (2007) and didn’t finish it (though you should read the comments below my review to see the opinion of someone who really liked it), but I really admired Starlight Peninsula (2015) because of the interesting issues it raised. So I didn’t hesitate when I saw Grimshaw’s latest title, Mazarine, at the library…

Mazarine was longlisted for the 2019 Ockhams and my explorations at Wikipedia tell me that her intention with her last five books has been to create her own version of a Human Comedy, after Balzac – a series of linked novels and short story collections about life in New Zealand.  Well, what Mazarine gives us is a view of New Zealanders who are multicultural, cosmopolitan and widely travelled.  This is the blurb:

When her daughter vanishes during a heatwave in Europe, writer Frances Sinclair embarks on a hunt that takes her across continents and into her own past. What clues can Frances find in her own history, and who is the mysterious Mazarine? Following the narrative thread left by her daughter, she travels through cities touched by terrorism and surveillance, where ways of relating are subtly changed, and a startling new fiction seems to be constructing itself.

There is a moment mid-way through the book when the text specifically addresses this issue of a new kind of fiction.  Frances, the central character, who has a kind of face blindness affecting her ability to recognise faces, is an author. She’s had some short stories published, and she’s toying with ideas for her first novel:

Absurd that I’d told her [Angela Lang, a journalist] about my supposed novel, a project I couldn’t even begin until I’d found Maya.  A woman who couldn’t read women: how could you hang a plot on that?  A woman wanting answers to her strange, isolating illiteracy, searching for answers to a lost mother while at the same time seeking — in a sense, seeking blind — her beloved daughter, who was missing in the ether, the futureworld. Could you construct a narrative out of blank spaces, out of disconnection? (p.172)

If Grimshaw’s intent was to explore these kinds of limits on fiction, then I would say that she has succeeded.  But the novel does more than that, it touches on some significant issues, not least the impact that surveillance has had on ordinary people.  When Maya goes missing and Frances makes contact with the mother of Joe, (the boyfriend travelling with Maya), Mazarine cautions against asking the police for help.  It’s not just that an email that doesn’t seem quite right in tone isn’t likely to be taken seriously because police would say that in a digital world the missing person had been in contact.  It’s also that while Mazarine’s son Joe is an atheist, her other son Mikail is Muslim like his father Emin (who’s from Chechnya, though living in Paris).  Mikail is ‘political’ and has been living in Molenbeek, a part of Brussels which has a reputation for being a hotbed of terrorist activity.  Mazarine understands why he’s angry:

‘In my opinion it’s quite rational for Mikail to be political and angry.  I’m occasionally quite political and angry myself.  But I don’t get put on lists, stopped at airports*, hassled in the street. According to my ex-husband, Mikail was angry about the way he’d been treated by authorities since he moved to Brussels, there were some incidents where he was stopped by police, and then since the terror attacks in Paris it was getting worse, a sort of vicious cycle, distrust and resentment on all sides. Mikail isn’t easy-going like Joe, he broods, he gets upset. I’m just saying, don’t go to the police yet; let’s think about it first.’  (p.76)

*Entirely by coincidence, I’ve just started reading Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie, and her first chapter features a Muslim woman who misses her flight because of a lengthy airport interrogation.

It dawns on Frances that any enquiry might trigger scrutiny that might cause harm to three innocent young people and she realises that she is actually a little afraid of the State…

… and by the State I mean the internationally linked network of surveillance that’s meant to protect us but increasingly seems as much oppressor, at least potentially, as protector. We’ve been given the impression that once a person has caught the attention of the security services, of the Five Eyes, or whatever name you give to the vast, anonymous apparatus that watches us, then even if innocent, he or she will be at risk, certainly marked indefinitely. (p.80)

And she realises that the expectation that Muslim parents report their children’s suspicious behaviour is more complex than it appears:

How many Muslim parents in the UK and Europe must be going through this, anxious about their children’s alarmingly secretive activities (yet doesn’t even the most innocent teenager delight in being alarmingly secretive), assured by all the relevant ‘anti-radicalisation’ services in the community that they can seek advice in confidence, yet knowing that as soon as they bring their children to the attention of authorities they are exposing not only the child but the whole family and community to forces that are themselves alarmingly secret, uncontrollable, relentless. It would certainly seem safer to try to correct the wayward child oneself. (p.84)

Grimshaw wrote and published this book before the Christchurch atrocity, but the questions she raises are certainly pertinent now.

However, and this is a big ‘however’,  Frances is a whiny, needy, over-thinking character who (as with Eloise in Starlight Peninsula) drinks too much so her narrative is incoherent.  (As with Eloise in Starlight Peninsula) she has an obnoxious mother, but in this novel Inez is not her birthmother, and narcissistic Frances who loves to analyse everything has a fine time wondering about Inez’s own disorganised attachment issues as causation for her obnoxiousness.  The reader can also ponder whether everybody is gaslighting Frances in order to protect Inez, but it’s quite possible that the siblings Frank and Natasha don’t exist, since Frances’s psychiatrist questions whether they do.  The other problem that readers can mull over is whether Frances really does see Nick (her Ex), who gets into her locked house and attacks her, an event which triggers her flight out of Auckland.  It seems real enough at the time, but when she subsequently sees him in London, Paris and feels watched even Buenos Aires, well, I’m not sure whether he was a figment of her overactive imagination, and I assume that was intentional on the author’s part.

This exasperating characterisation almost made me abandon the book, but of course I had to find out what had happened to Maya, and why!

See also the review at The Spinoff.

Author: Charlotte Grimshaw
Title: Mazarine
Publisher: Vintage (Penguin Random House NZ), 2018
ISBN: 9780143771821, pbk., 278 pages
Source: Bayside Library Service, Sandringham Branch

Available from Fishpond: Mazarine


  1. The characters sound so interesting. I love the fact that Mazerine has both an Athiest and Muslim son.

    On the other hand, I can see how a character who may be hallucinating another character would strain plausibility. It is also something of a cliche.


    • I found it interesting because (based mainly on my reading of NZ fiction) I tend to think of NZ as bi-cultural, that is Maori and Pakeha mainly of Scottish descent. And it’s not like that at all…


  2. Oh, this sounds good. I read her novel “Soon” which married politics with murder a few years back. It was a brilliantly compelling read even though, like this book, it was filled with whiny, needy, over-thinking and obnoxious characters!


  3. […] Yes, by coincidence Home Fire follows Charlotte Grimshaw’s treatment of this same theme of surveillance of Muslims in Mazarine. (See my review) […]


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