Monday, February 22, 2016
Review: DOLLY DOLL
by Leo Schulz (Lulu Press, 2014)
Reviewed by Craig Sisterson
Two naive middle-class teenagers are confronted by the harsh realities of life for those 'from the other side of the tracks' when their rebellious joyride deep into the 1970s New Zealand countryside takes a sinister turn.
A teen coming-of-age roadtrip full of misadventures melds with a gritty gang tale in this fast-moving novella (98 pages). DOLLY DOLL is penned by London-based Kiwi author Leo Schulz, who grew up in South Auckland and the rural Hokianga (both places where he had some contact with indigenous New Zealand gangs). He's used that background knowledge to good effect in this story set in the 1970s North Island countryside.
Dolly is a fifteen-year-old from a good family, doing well at boarding school, but feeling a bit listless. Her life feels so plain and organised: her family owns a dairy farm, she's just completed school exams, and is looking forward to a holiday in Sydney with her best friend, and her father buying her a Morris Minor for her sixteenth birthday. She yearns for more than her comfortable 'good girl' life, and when her rich and reckless boyfriend Freddie decides to head out of town, Dolly doesn't take much convincing to go with him.
But what starts as a bit of teenage rebellion and freedom-chasing quickly goes awry when Freddie brutally beats up a Maori youth who looked at Dolly 'the wrong way'. It's the kind of violence Dolly's never witnessed before, and is only a harbinger of much worse things to come.
The young couple are now fully on the run: not just from their parents, but also from the police and anybody who knows the badly beaten boy. When Dolly is out and about and runs into four leather-jacketed Maori men, she shudders to realise the boy was associated with the Mongrel Mob, a feared New Zealand gang.
Feeling isolated among the small towns and spacious countryside of 1970s New Zealand, fearful of going to the police because of what they've done, Dolly and Freddie try to escape from the gang, kick-starting a terrifying game of cat-and-mouse that leaves the youngsters facing some brutal realities and harsh choices.
DOLLY DOLL is subtitled as 'love in the backblocks', but it is no romance. From the young lovers themselves to Dolly's growing fascination with one of the gang members, everything is a little dark, a little twisted. Actually, more than a little. This is a gritty tale that may shock some, but is realistic in many ways, from its portrayal of teenage naivete to the blend of violent loyalties and mercenary nature in gang life.
In short time and space, Schulz crafts an attention-grabbing tale that is worth a read. His prose veers blunt rather than elegant, suiting the story he's telling. Short chapters and plenty of action keeps things moving. For me, I was curious to follow Dolly and Freddie's story, without ever feeling completely engaged by them as characters. Don't get me wrong, Schulz crafts some interesting and very believable characters throughout DOLLY DOLL. For a novella-length tale where an author doesn't have many brush-strokes to work with, I felt he did a good job bringing texture, even a little depth in some cases, to much of the cast.
Schulz creates a solid narrative drive: just what will happen to Freddie and Dolly? Will the Mongrel Mob exact revenge? They wanted adventure and to escape from their ordinary if sheltered lives - can they now escape from their escape? And how will they be changed by the experience, if they survive it?
A quick read, exciting in parts, that raises a few issues and gives readers a peek into the differing layers of New Zealand rural life as it was back in the 1970s - and may still be in some ways.
Note: despite being independently published and not widely available in bookstores, this book created a bit of a stir online, as rival New Zealand gangs the Mongrel Mob and Black Power battled on Facebook. You can read more here.