In this droll, beguiling tale, the mayor of a depressed New Zealand town finds an unusual way to damp pessimism and rekindle cooled marriages.
The town of New Egypt began to empty out in the 1970s when the main business, the NE Paints factory, closed. As the book opens some 20 years later, Mayor Harry Bryant, the first-person narrator, has just returned to New Egypt from a trip abroad in time to oversee the latest effort to keep the town from dying and find “a way to live in a place so riddled with rejection.” But his hopes that the first cruise ship ever to dock at New Egypt will lead to more tourist arrivals are sunk when the posh visitors see “how wretched we look” and can’t weigh anchor fast enough. As Jones (A History of Silence, 2014, etc.) weaves his meandering tale through flashbacks and detours, it very slowly becomes apparent that the remedy for New Egypt is right there in town. It dates from a 1942 rat infestation and one of the men who didn’t go to war, a teacher and artist named Alma. He offered the women left alone his pest-control services if they posed for him. He remained attached to one named Alice (580 sketches) even when her husband returned and, suspecting a dalliance, spent weeks moving a sizable hill by shovel and handcart to prove his love. Alice ended up with yet another man and gave birth to Harry, who used his payoff from NE Paints’ closure to buy a junk shop, where he employs Alma. Together they concoct something to revive the town’s spirits that shouldn’t be spoiled by disclosure and that is both far-fetched and utterly suitable for this quirky rummage tale.
Jones’ deep affection for his characters and the light, anecdotal touch with which he nudges them away from despair makes for a warm and original entertainment.