- Publish Date
- Saturday, 16 December 2017, 9:28AM
- By Stephanie Jones
Some of the fictional intrigue in New Zealand’s halls of power, as described in David Crossman’s A Sovereign Nation, sounds awfully familiar: the deputy leader of the Opposition, Georgina Christiansen, is a charismatic woman in her mid-30s with genuine political talent, the admiration of the Press Gallery and broad popular appeal; the Justice Minister, one Jackie Cummings (note the initials) is gunning for the top job and privately promising to “ruthlessly crush her enemies” with the support of her husband, a Chinese-New Zealand businessman 15 years her senior; Frederick Powers, the New Zealand First leader, is a thorn in the side of the House, a man of advanced age who drinks like a fish but represents the only route to power retention for the ruling National Party, which suspects he will fancy the foreign affairs portfolio and deputy Prime Ministership if a snap election yields a blue result.
There’s no summarising the many-tentacled plot, but the anxious 2020s setting gives a good steer as to tone and content. New Zealand is led by Michael Armstrong, a decorated war veteran who returns from the Moscow Economic Summit to a country in financial crisis, with large sections of its capital destroyed by an earthquake, its economy held in bondage to the IMF, and its political masters caught in a nasty geopolitical bind between Tonga and Fiji, who are nearly at war over China’s involvement in the South Pacific. Lest you think ‘at least we’ll always have dairy’, the cattle population is blighted by an epidemic.
And in Crossman’s near-future, Brexit was just the warm-up act: the EU has since disintegrated, globalisation is finished, and the League of Aboriginal Peoples Nations is a dominant global force with connections to the Indigenous People’s Party of Aotearoa. Armstrong is advised by competing GCSB and SIS directors – in this story, everyone is someone’s deadly rival – that the IPPA has received a $100 million funding line of unknown provenance after a clandestine meeting on a marae involving a member of the service known as New Zealand Military Intelligence. Plot-wise, all of the above is just a taster.
If it had appeared two years ago, A Sovereign Nation would be easily dismissed on grounds of implausibility: today, the possibility of New Zealand’s government staving off socioeconomic apocalypse by making an unholy deal with either China, the United States or a murky Swiss-German consortium just seems like good risk management (though surely it will be the US passing around the alms bowl first).
A bit harder to swallow is a scene of the Prime Minister sitting down with the deputy Opposition leader over a whisky, offering her advice on taking his job, and sharing information which will reduce his prospects for winning re-election. He can perhaps be forgiven, for in his vaguely besotted view, his opponent “radiated a calm benevolence, an indescribable sense of well-being; to meet her was to immediately fall under her spell.”
A touch simplistically, female characters are sexualised where their masculine counterparts are not: Cumming is described (by her female lover) as lacking “Christiansen’s fine beauty [and] sexual allure, but her full figure was deliciously curvaceous and the devilish smile she beamed from that alabaster face was remarkably infectious.” (Nonetheless, the women of A Sovereign Nation are intellectual equals, and power brokers of the first order.)
Mostly, however, Crossman omits physical description in favour of conversation, of which the novel almost entirely consists. There are too many instances of two people talking exposition in a room, which few politically minded writers who aren’t Aaron Sorkin can pull off over multiple chapters.
In its subject matter and dialogue-driven style, A Sovereign Nation recalls another recent political suspense piece, Adam K Childs’s Schrodinger’s Cabinet. And like that novel, Crossman’s would have benefited from some judicious paring back: a shelved subplot or omitted conversation here and there would enhance readability and momentum, and allow a chilling political horror story to emerge.
Every week Stephanie reviews the Book of the Week.
As the Coast book reviewer, Stephanie Jones shares her thoughts each week on the latest releases.
Stephanie has a BA (Hons) in history and English literature, and a background in journalism, magazine publishing, public relations and corporate and consumer communications.
Stephanie is a contributor to the New Zealand Book Council’s ‘Talking Books’ podcast series (listen here), and a member of the 2016 Ngaio Marsh Award judging panel. She can be found on Twitter @ParsingThePage.
Take your Radio, Podcasts and Music with you