A Sunday Star Times article recently examined the shameless ‘I love my country’ zeal that currently colours our cultural psyche and has invaded all forms of art. And given the acclaim for his earlier novel Stonedogs as a ‘true New Zealand original’, I reached for Craig Marriner’s latest novel Southern Style with some reluctance. Set in London and tracing the Big OE of three youthful antipodeans, I expected a fair bit of patriotic sentimentality. You can imagine the typical scenario: Kiwi Mike catches a red double decker bus to Piccadilly Square and heads to the Walkabout. He meets Pete who is wearing a bone carving, stripy thermals under a Canterbury rugby shirt. They complain that the Steiny tastes different, romanticise the Kiwi summer and soon discover they’re related. The rest of the story relives the ageing author’s rambunctious youth, plotlessly recounting drunken shenanigans of Kiwis let loose in London.
But Marriner is far too smart to simply rehash this national story. Sure the central idea is located within an almost endemic obsession, but Southern Style is a complex novel, politically charged, engaged with racial issues and a damn good story too. It follows the lives of three antipodeans on working holiday visas in London. There’s Lisa (feisty South African), Alex (naïve New Zealander) and Ryan (reckless Australian). Of course there’s the usual hedonistic boozing, partying and watching rugby. But this is where Southern Style ceases to conform to a predictable narrative. The first half is devoted to establishing characters, their relationships and social dynamic with a particular emphasis on their anti-Blair, anti-establishment values and illegal pastimes. Their friendship splinters under the pressure of love, money and crime but converges when some ‘Big Shit Goes Down’. Suddenly, all three are tangled up in the criminal underground. London is no longer a non-stop party.
There are gangs, ghettos and tramps, but it is the bigoted middle-upper class that take the real beatings.
It is not all bleak and brutal. The story entwines humour through its starkly ribald youthful characters and Marriner’s own enjoyment of a good laugh. In the conjunction of light-hearted humour and realistic violence, Southern Style is vaguely reminiscent of Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, but with more developed characters.
Marriner further raises the intellectual bar with repeated commentary on political, social and racial issues. Although overly sympathetic towards society’s under classes, some of Marriner’s ideas are nothing short of brilliant. Take for example, Alex’s angry rebuke when a hotel doorman abuses him for begging: “who do you think you are? Holding doors open and smiling for scraps makes you better than me, does it? You’re as much a beggar as anyone. You’re just on a better blag…Listen to your accent. You’re as working class as they come, mate…”
Overall, Southern Style is an exciting read. It is fast paced, thought-provoking, well-written and firmly cements Marriner’s status as one of New Zealand’s best up and coming writers.
Written by CRAIG MARRINER