Lifting by Damien Wilkins.
Wellington: VUP (2017).
RRP: $30. Pb, 202pp.
Reviewed by Jessie Neilson.
In Damien Wilkins’ ninth novel, Lifting, ‘Wellington’s Grand Old Lady’, the department store Cutty’s, is closing down. With all the grandeur of times past, atmosphere drifts down the decades in the twin door men, Bert and Douglas, polishing the gold door handles; in the (seemingly) blind piano player dressed in a white tuxedo and playing the white Steinway; and in the Tea Room on the fourth floor, serving pots of tea and cream buns to busy shoppers. Having seen out the depression era, world wars, and the inching of economic lows, Cutty’s can no longer go on. Like Ballentynes or Arthur Barnett its purpose had been concentrated in eras past.
The many staff members are all to lose their jobs, and due to a leak, they first hear about redundancy via the newspaper. One such staff member is Amy. In her mid-thirties, she has partner Steve and baby Frank. Her life, outside of work, is mired in relentless and unattractive domesticity. Her prioritised tasks come down to choosing particular types of nappies and making sure that Steve sleeps with his anti-snoring devices in. In her paid-work sphere, she has been employed at Cutty’s for four years as a store detective, and with a suspicious eye, this pastime comes naturally to her. She is tasked with following POIs (Persons of Interest), and she perfects her plainclothes image, mussing her hair and wincing realistically when circulation in her extremities plays up.
However, everything is about to change. Cutty’s management has called a store-wide meeting and union representatives are present. Gertrude Cutty, the great doyenne and matriarch, though, is not. Discontent and anguish simmers; nerves fray. News of the store’s dissolution emits “a kind of poison into the air, weakening bonds, minds”. Cutty’s enters a storewide sale mode and is flooded with shoppers of last-minute bargains, a prime condition for blatant theft if ever there were one. As Amy contends, it was common knowledge that the gorgeousness of a department store was an enticement to depart one’s good character. The rhetoric of Cutty’s as “one big family” is dismantling.
Like Dad Art and his previous novels, Wilkins embraces the smallest and seemingly most insignificant details of a person’s life, sparing the reader not at all. Whether Amy is at work or at home the reader follows through her observations and actions, so that we feel part of her banal existence. The reader may as well be in a “mums and bubs” group in terms of general preoccupations. In the work setting we are privy to her glimpsed instances of customer ‘lifting’ and the methods with which she follows these through, as well as excellent anecdotes between colleagues and friends regarding shoplifting in which they have participated, or witnessed. It seems there are no shortages of innovative ways to accomplish the filching of nail polish or gloves, and Wilkins depicts situations gleefully. Likewise Wilkins’ inclusion of characters and their traits is all-encompassing, and we come to know the irritations and idiosyncrasies of Amy’s colleagues and friends as they are chattily described in an ever-fluid, ongoing narration.
Like Dad Art, Victoria University Press has produced a high-quality, attractive and compact work, in line with the author’s continual professionalism in prose and form. The cover is both witty and reminiscent of times past, harking back to department stores of long-gone days. Wilkins has certainly done his research in portraying this realistically, right down to wonderful details such as the hollowed-out pillars with peepholes that used to contain security in more primitive form. While the narrative is situated mostly in the immediate present, Wilkins cleverly manages frames which knit together tightly by the conclusion, and which cause the reader to question their readings. Lifting is condensed, jam-packed with detail, and full of the dustiness, intrigue, gossip and mayhem that such an historical, mildew-filled institution would be hoped to possess.
Jessie Neilson studied English at Otago and also holds qualifications in the areas of second language teaching and library and information studies. She has taught international students here and abroad. Jessie is a regular reviewer for the Otago Daily Times and works in the University of Otago Central Library. She has broad interests in matters literary.