The literary page-turner – a rare beast. Pip Adam can do it. John Colapinto managed it with both fiction and non-fiction and here Carl Shuker manages it and essentially turns non-fiction into fiction, or frames fiction via non-fiction and/or vice-versa. But what’s true, instantly, of A Mistake, his fifth novel, is that the writing is electric, the pacing and structure of this book pulls you through along with it. It’s not quite a race but it is a compelling, nearly white-knuckle ride.
I say nearly, because it’s far more nuanced than just a hurtle down a hill, but still, somehow, A Mistake gives us nearly every aspect of that type of thrill as well.
Set in Wellington, at the hospital we know – with stopovers around the city including the Garage Project’s taproom, a Ryan Adams concert at the Opera House and a few out of Wellington visits too (a medical conference in Queenstown, a birthday bash in Auckland) – A Mistake tells us the tale of Elizabeth Taylor. She is a surgeon. And if you’re wondering if she’s a tribute to the movie star, or to J.G. Ballard’s tribute to her in his writing…well, Shuker’s not telling. But what is telling about this Taylor is that she has a name that conjures grace and glamour despite her job as a public hospital house surgeon. She’s mocked by one rival as being, basically, a charitable trust. She however has a style all her own. And if she’s a rulebreaker when she needs to be, it’s only after learning it all first.
In the opening chapter, we learn of the mistake that drives the narrative – a botched op, a death as a result. From there we’re to the consequences, to the questions of culpability and capability and to the theme of how mistakes and pressure-situations, unenviable, untenable pressure-cooker situations, are the defining moments in careers, rather than the celebration of not just success, but of competency; of all the times there was never a mistake.
Taylor is a teacher too, and in her lectures her favourite teaching-story is the botch that was the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion in 1986. In alternating chapters we get the timeline of the Challenger “Mistake” – as a parallel to the outcome and fallout from Taylor’s hospital error.
This is not just clever layering – it’s where Shuker gets to show his real chops as a storyteller working within literary fiction. Tilly Lloyd of Unity Books has referred to this as “Black Belt writing” – a phrase so perfect that I simply have to borrow it – with acknowledgment.
This Liz Taylor is a fascinating, flawed character. The best kind. She is sharp and fierce and mysterious and talented. She is no caricature. No cliché. This too is where Shuker’s writing – his control, tone, pacing, style – is mesmeric.
There’s more I could tell you about this novel – but it would feel like too much of a reveal. That Carl Shuker is able to show us so much in one book is a near herculean feat. That he’s achieved it in under 200 pages is nearly an act of sorcery.
He might just have created a new gold standard for The Great New Zealand Novel too. For this is filled with local places and scene-specific writing, packed with medical jargon, and yet it’s a story that could play out internationally, that has – in various ways, no doubt. It’s a story that deserves to be seen on the screen in some imagining. But first let’s celebrate this version of it. An amazing piece of writing.