I hadn't heard of Greta & Valdin when a friend recommended it to me but they said it was smart and funny and that was reason enough for me to give it a try. Its cover offered not much in the way of explanation of its contents, though the soft pink and green were appealing enough (like a retro bathroom?). Who were Greta and Valdin, I wondered - were they characters about to fall in love?
Yes. But also no.
Greta and Valdin are siblings. He is the queer, over-thinking middle child. She the equally queer baby of the family. They share a Māori mother and a Russian father as well as a flat in central Auckland and have, frankly, tragic love lives. Greta has a long-held crush on one of her tutor colleagues, Holly, whereas Valdin is pining for his ex, who now lives in South America, and who also happens to be the brother of their uncle's husband...
It's all rather messy. The original title of the novel was Vines (it was under this title that author Rebecca K. Reilly (Ngāti Hine, Ngāti Wai) won the 2019 Adam Foundation Prize in Creative Writing). I can see why - the lives of the central characters and their families and lovers become fairly well tangled by the end of things, twining about each other in a well-watered but unpruned kind of way.
The book follows the lives and loves of Greta and Valdin, alternating chapters between them as they try to navigate aforementioned crushes, and pining, but also worrying about their careers, and their relationships with other members of their family. To be honest, I didn't think I particularly liked either of them in the opening chapters but by the end I was cheering them both on as they try to find the stability, groundedness, and love that they both need to be happy.
Greta & Valdin's contemporary setting, with its humid, hilly Auckland is immediately recognisable. As are the people in it, from their clothing, to their attitudes (and even their preferred snacks). It's been a while since I read something that was so immediately familiar.
The book also perfectly captures the sometimes exquisite awkwardness of being both Māori and Pākehā. Take, for instance, this scene which precedes one of Valdin's work trips:
... Simon turns towards me. 'V, did you want to say anything quickly?'
I blink, trying to remember why I might need to say something. 'Um, no, I don't think there was anything else?'
'Oh, I just meant like a quick karakia before we get on the plane.'
Everyone looks at me. They look serious and warmly accepting of my culture. I can't even think of one karakia. I think of a school camp where we had to sing 'Thank you, Lord for giving us food', to the Superman theme tune. In a panic, I think whether it would be appropriate to sing a song by the Māori and Pasifika reggae band Herbs.
'I can step in, ' Bailey, the production manager, says... Everyone looks down respectfully as she recites a karakia beginning 'Nau mai e ngā hua', which I'm pretty sure is about food, not travelling. Then I doubt myself. I look around for another brown face, someone who might relate to how I'm feeling, but I don't see anyone except a security guard on the other side of the terminal.
A few pages earlier Valdin walks through one of the fancier suburbs in Auckland to make a visit to his uncle's house and feels a particular kind of discomfort that comes from being Māori in proximity to money:
I always walk a bit more hastily than I usually do here, just in case the police come and take me away. Māori male, approx. thirty years, thin build, seen enjoying the shade of a colonial tree. Witnesses include a $3000 Pomeranian and ten high-tech home security systems.
I thought both of these scenes were breathtaking in their ability to absolutely nail a sense of not quite fitting - a sense of otherness that is par for the course for Māori but which I have never seen captured so well before in fiction. But also Reilly has managed to be really funny about it. I feel SEEN. But also amused. This is excellent.
Reilly is up for poking fun at a great many things, not the least of which are the beverage and accessory choices of Auckland media types and contemporary workplace layouts as evidenced below:
Simon waves me over into the meeting room and I close the door as gently as I can. I wish this potential firing wasn't taking place in a glass room, but I suppose that's late-stage capitalism for you...
... He smiles and drinks from a glass bottle of cold brew as he talks to me. He is wearing a beanie.
I laughed out loud at the late-stage capitalism quip and am not ashamed.
Despite the lovelorn beginning there are some genuinely heartwarming romantic moments in the book as well, though it's not a smooth path to romantic fulfillment and Greta does worry at certain points that she's veered off course (she tries dating men again and awkward dates ensue), and after hearing her father recount the romantic declaration he made to her mother she finds her own experiences have been lacking:
No one's ever said anything like that to me before. Matthew said my essay about Death in Venice was objectively fine. Holly said I have blue eyes, but I don't. The date said I had some strong opinions about kebabs. I wonder if people are having beautiful things said to them all the time, and I've just gone wrong somewhere.
It's okay, Greta. Someone further on in the book will say some rather lovely things to you. Just hang in there!
Yes, by the end of this funny, smart, tangled web of family and romantic relationships you really can't help but root for everyone involved. Rebecca K. Reilly, you have a new fan.