Joe Bennett ‘King Rich’

The story is set in Christchurch immediately after the February 2011 earthquake. Its story line revolves around Rich, an older alcoholic seeking shelter with a stray dog in the crumbling Grand Hotel, and Annie, a young woman returning from London to the traumatised city to search for the father who disappeared from her life twenty years earlier.

Opening with a detailed observation of a rescue from an elevator in the collapsing Grand Hotel during the February 2011 earthquake the book vividly describes the chaos, the destruction and the rubble. As reader I can visualise and smell things I’ve never experienced, I am there.

If reading is collaboration between writer and reader - the writer using words that allow the reader to create the image the reader can visualize - this book is a success. Detailed observations allow me to see scenes, to be on the roads and at the airports. I smell the meat rotting in the fridge; I feel the dog’s fur and its rough tongue licking the hand or the blood of the wound.

The characters are described with memorable details without ever being complete, allowing the space to create my own image. The details are glimpses of body parts – hair growing on toes, black stubble growing on a thick female calf, the shirt too big for the neck. Annie is beautiful, but I don’t remember why, or how. Vince is described as “sixty years old. He had the scrawniness of one who has kept himself fit but whom the years have still bitten. He was bald as a cue ball.”

The author’s love of dogs shines through every part of the book. His dislike of women is palpable and jumps off the page. Most women in the book – Annie and her friend Jess are the exemption – are shallow and unlikeable; there’s nothing positive in these characters.

Male characters are portrayed as loving but weak and bullied. Only David, the old patriarch bent over his sticks with hair growing out of his nostrils, is in charge of his (and others’) destiny.  The other men love their children and obey their wives.

Those niggles aside, the book gripped me, held my attention and I finished it within two days. I cared about the characters, and remained engaged and interested in how they meet, connect, disconnect and share experiences. Not all questions are answered at the end: What was Rich’s accident? Will Annie marry Paul, have lots of children and settle in London?

An enjoyable read, with its glimpse into the reality of life after disaster an important story.

Review by Fiona Kidman:

Review by David Hill: