Poetry Shelf review: Eileen Merriman’s Black Violet

Black Spiral, Eileen Merriman, Penguin, 2022

I choose my books carefully in these tumultuous times. I want a book that transports, uplifts, lingers long after you put it down. A book that raises questions, that offers edge, but that leaves you anchored. That draws you in close to what is good in humanity as much as it might signal what is bad. I adored reading the first two volumes in Eileen Merriman’s The Black Spiral trilogy. My words grace the back of the third volume:

Characters matter, dialogue matters, real-life detail matters, significant issues matter and you are always held in the grip of a perfectly pitched narrative …This YA fiction at its life-crackling best.

This appraisal also applies to the third and final volume, Black Spiral because it resonates and grips on many levels. Like the first two books, it is exquisitely crafted at the level of both sentence and architecture. Violet and Johnno/ Phoenix have escaped the Foundation and what the Foundation might do to them, in its devastating commitment to virus experimentation on humans. The Foundation is especially keen to track the escapees down, to harness (hijack, manipulate) their skills at shape-shifting, astral travelling, telepathy. Especially as Violet is pregnant.

What makes the novel strike so deeply are the ideas. Follow the stench of corruption wherein those in power (not just the Foundation but across Governments and other organisations) use power to serve themselves as opposed to multiple communities. To serve the well-off, to dupe the vulnerable. What price human life? was a question running through my mind as I read. Ideas on biological warfare, vaccines, pandemics, human greed, percolate above and below the narrative surface. I am reminded how we need to insist on scrutiny, on speaking out, on maintaining solid, useful and indeed loving human connections.

Yet what also makes the novel are the characters. The way good and evil are not clear cut, easily discernible divisions. For example, Violet’s father’s choices. Or the way some characters are absolute, unadulterated evil and must be stopped. The protagonists, Violet and Jonno, along with the supportive crew that gathers around them, are prismatic. You look through their eyes, actions and thoughts, and see and feel the world differently. You feel their love and courage, their determination to never give up. And yes, this determination to continue and face all the challenges and sideswipes, no matter how tough, is gripping. I couldn’t put the book down.

Black Spiral clung to me as I ate, did chores, did my own writing. After I read the final page, I dreamed of the novel that night, and it stuck with me the next day. Like a shape shifter before my eyes. Like a phantom cloud of ideas, plot and epiphanies. The relationships, the connections. Eileen’s medical background adds gritty layers, ethical choices, questions about the babies we carry, medical interventions, using humans as guinea pigs, being transparent.

Black Spiral still clings as I work on my own novel, as I read the next poetry book, as I hang out the washing, listen to the latest Covid numbers, the catastrophic events in Ukraine, the twisted choices of the protestors. Novels as good as this offer retreat, reinforcement and uplift. Glorious.

Penguin page

Eileen Merriman’s first young adult novel, Pieces of You, was published in 2017, and was a finalist in the NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults and a Storylines Notable Book. Since then, she has published another nine novels for adults and young adults and received huge critical praise, with one reviewer saying: ‘Merriman is an instinctive storyteller with an innate sense of timing.’ In addition to being a regular finalist in the NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults, Merriman was a finalist in the 2021 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel and Moonlight Sonata was longlisted for the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction 2020. Editions of some of her young adult novels have been released in Germany, Turkey and the UK and three have been optioned for film or TV, including the Black Spiral Trilogy.

Her other awards include runner-up in the 2018 Sunday Star-Times Short Story Award and third in the same award for three consecutive years previously. She works as a consultant haematologist at North Shore Hospital.

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