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There’s a scene early on in Janet Colson’s debut, The Shark Party, in which the female main char­ac­ter has sex with a man. This prob­ably doesn’t con­sti­tute too dire a spoil­er, but Colson says she was sur­prised at the responses to an early draft: “There was a very old guy in my writ­ing class who couldn’t read it. He said, ‘It seems like she’s rap­ing him.’ I thought, this is weird. And really what it seemed like was that this was a sex scene from a woman’s perspective.”

It shouldn’t be shock­ing to read a pos­it­ive, mutu­ally enjoy­able exper­i­ence described in the woman’s words. Colson makes no apo­lo­gies for depict­ing sex — or work, or art, or life — from a per­spect­ive she shares with 51 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion. “I wanted to show weak­ness and bras and clothes. When I’m read­ing a male-writ­ten nov­el I know I’m in a male world and I have to make allow­ances for that.”

Ques­tions of gender, per­spect­ive and agency recur in The Shark Party — in the ser­vice of a fast-mov­ing dra­mat­ic thrill­er, set in and around the Man­hat­tan art world. The book’s prot­ag­on­ist is Carla, a New York artist with a keen eye but a habit of dis­trust­ing her own instincts — lead­ing to the jeal­ousy-fuelled unrav­el­ling of her Green­wich Vil­lage exist­ence. “I hear lots of women put­ting them­selves down,” Colson explains. “They often defer to those around them and find it hard to decide what they really want for them­selves. Carla does this a lot at the start.”

One of the novel’s most sat­is­fy­ing shifts is in the way Carla relates to her world. When we meet her, she dazzles with lush, obsess­ively visu­al descrip­tions of the New York high life to rival Brett East­on Ellis. As she’s broken down and builds her­self back up again, these open up into a more var­ied sens­ory palette, as the char­ac­ter redis­cov­ers sound, music, taste, touch.

New York was always some­where where my mind felt free,” Colson explains: “I’m an ordin­ary per­son but I was mov­ing in an extraordin­ary world.” This was the world of arts fun­drais­ing. She describes it as “help­ing oth­er people live their story — not just so people will give them money, but so that they can bring their art form alive”.

She’d long con­sidered her exper­i­ences might make a good back­drop for a nov­el, and says that at her first writ­ing class (Mandy Hager was among the tutors who helped shape her approach) “all the lights just went on”. The Shark Party was the res­ult: an enga­ging, evoc­at­ive page-turn­er of a debut, writ­ten in Wel­ling­ton with an eye on a much lar­ger world. When Colson next steps into that world, hope­fully she takes us along.


The Shark Party, Janet Colson, Escal­at­or Press

Tom Goulter

Tom is FishHead's book columnist. A Master's degree in Creative Writing from Victoria's International Institute of Modern Letters launched Goulter on the life of an itinerant man of letters, wandering the fractious United states in search of.. whatever it was Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper were after, probably. Instead of getting shot by rednecks (yet), he returned to Wellington, where he essays semi-regularly into popular culture, psycho-geography, underground film-making, and the uncanny in all its myriad forms. Not a day goes by that he does not wish Manners Street still had Crystal city on it.