2017, a student; 2020, a literary superstar

Paula Morris on her former writing student, now the author of a worldwide smash, Auckland novelist Rose Carlyle

On a mild Wednesday evening last week, I attended the launch for a debut novel. There were more than 100 guests crowding the ground floor of the National Library in Auckland. There were more people in the signing line than at the free bar, and even before the speeches the books on sale were almost sold out.

The novel, published that day and instantly in reprint, is The Girl in the Mirror, a novel about greed, manipulation and deception, involving a rich Australian family, rival twin sisters, a fateful yacht trip across the Indian Ocean, and a patriarch’s tantalising inheritance. With echoes of Succession and The Talented Mr Ripley, the novel is in a fine tradition of fiction that explores the sinister bonds of twins.

The author of The Girl in the Mirror is Auckland writer Rose Carlyle, and the out-the-gate success of her novel (UK and US rights, translation sales, a film option) has awoken the sleepy New Zealand news media, generally comatose at the mention of a book: Rose even appeared on two different TV shows on the same night. Fans of our local YeahNoir brand of thrillers won’t be surprised: novelists like Paul Cleave and Ben Sanders are massive sellers overseas, and Rose’s canny nod to recent international hits (Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train, The Woman in the Window) suggests a similar trajectory for her novel.

I’m not surprised either. The novel has strong characters and a twisting plot, and it’s a highly readable page-turner. Another canny decision: The Girl in the Mirror is published by Allen & Unwin Australia, not the New Zealand outpost, ensuring a large initial domestic market. (New Zealand is largely confined to the novel’s acknowledgements.)

I also know how accomplished a writer Rose is. In 2017, she was a student on my Master of Creative Writing [MCW] course. I admit 12 writers a year into this programme, and applicants are mainly fiction and creative nonfiction writers; our poets include Daren Kamali, Heidi North, Richard Pamatatau and Neema Singh.

The 2017 cohort was a great one. It included Heidi North, whose recent collection We Are Tiny Beneath the Light was sampled by U2 at their New Zealand concerts last year, and Rosetta Allan, who during the course wrote her second novel, The Unreliable People, for Random House. Amy McDaid won the $5000 James Wallace Creative Writing Prize that year for her sparkling first novel, Fake Baby, published this June by Penguin and still on the bestseller list. Pip McKay’s upcoming novel, The Telling Time, chosen by Sebastian Faulks as winner of the international First Pages Prize, began life in class that year, as did The Forever Forest, a YA fantasy novel by Sonya Wilson that will be published next year.

These writers from her cohort attended Rose’s launch to support her. Also there: writers from other cohorts, because it’s a community that keeps growing. These included 2015’s Caroline Barron, author of the new memoir Ripiro Beach, and Rachel O’Connor, author of the Salonika-set novel Whispering City, just published by the largest publisher in Greece. From 2016 there was Angelique Kasmara, another Wallace Prize winner, whose gritty urban novel Isobar Precinct will be published next year by Cuba Press, and Ruby Porter, winner of the Michael Gifkins Prize for her debut novel Attraction, published by Text Australia and longlisted in this year’s Ockham NZ Book Awards. All three of the novels began life on the MCW.

Rose didn’t write The Girl in the Mirror during her MCW year. The novel she began that year—for which she received first-class honours— remains unfinished. It’s a compelling, engrossing read, and more psychologically complex, I think, than the novel she’s published first, though much less obviously commercial. (Its setting, Te Atatu peninsula, does not yet have the cachet of the settings of The Girl in the Mirror, Seychelles and Phuket.) I hope Rose will return to it at some point. But there’s no hurry. As Junot Diaz says, a book is never late to the party. Right now, Rose can enjoy her success and promote The Girl in the Mirror. May she and her talented classmates publish many, many books.

The Girl in the Mirror by Rose Carlyle (Allen & Unwin, $32.99) is available in bookstores nationwide.


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