Review: Poor People With Money

Reviewed by Ruth Spencer

Poor People With Money is a breathless, desperate sort of ride with brutality and grit but also deep undercurrents of beauty.

If there’s one thing poverty can be relied on to accelerate, it's entropy. The mouldy decay of a damp flat, the stinking foetidness of a bare old mattress, broken windows replaced by cardboard that lets in more damp, more rot.  Poverty lets putrefaction make itself at home, gradually replacing everything until that’s all there is. Monday Woolridge is broke. Her friends are broke. Her family is broke. And everything is inexorably turning to the proverbial.

Monday is a prize fighter in the Muay Thai ring with trophies and money to win.  But she’s also a full-time bar manager on minimum wage, serving cheerful poison to the wealthy and obnoxious of Kingsland.  Her dad is gone, her mother succumbed to early-onset dementia following the tragic disappearance of Monday’s young brother Eddie.

Monday has worked hard for years: toughened and scarred by the boxing training her brawler father gave her, accustomed to all kinds of pain, she’s dangerous in the ring and could go all the way. All she needs is a plane ticket to Thailand to train with the best. Her coach has selected her for this career-making opportunity and all she has to do is come up with the money. It might as well be a trip to the moon.

Monday turns to her flatmate, the taciturn, intriguing supernatural researcher JJ. He knows about the dark web and so Monday embarks on a reckless get-rich-quick scheme that embroils her in far more money and danger than she could have anticipated.  JJ and Monday must flee north to JJ’s home-town, a village “so small it’s not on most maps.”

Poor People With Money is a breathless, desperate sort of ride. It has brutality and grit but also deep undercurrents of beauty.  Its melancholy and insightful. “...when people die they stop making new mistakes and you can start forgiving them for the old ones.”  It’s also a cinematic thriller; the Vampire Plateau sequence late in the book is intensely vivid and suspenseful.  In a different way so is the provincial medical clinic, with its callous staff like Terry who might drive the ambulance over if he gets around to it.  There’s succinct commentary on the behaviour of those accustomed to wealth, casually and carelessly making things worse for those barely getting by; gangsters looking for a cut, rich farmers trying to grab communal land and polluting the water.

It’s also viciously funny.  Never has Sky City’s bus terminal been so accurately and blackly described.  Romeo, a cruel, slick maniac with a little lapdog, is a delicious antagonist with his politely sinister texts: ‘We’d quite like our money back xox.’  Tragic Ponsonby bars where punters indistinguishable from each other maul back and forth in blind pursuit of some kind of Friday night pleasure: ‘You’re not Brad?’  It’s eminiently quotable; Hoey is a kind of vernacular Wilde. ‘Shut the f--- up! I’m trying to meditate!’

Poor People With Money has been compared to Trainspotting, Breaking Bad and Once Were Warriors, and it does deserve to sit in that pantheon of works that expose the desperation and breakneck choices forced by poverty. But it’s also a Mt Albert Wuthering Heights.  A ghost story haunted by the wraiths of loss, love and the pain of never knowing. It’s a belated coming of age tale of letting go and stepping fully into a life beyond the grief of the past. It’s brutality with redemption at its heart and, like money, it leaves you wanting more.

Reviewed by Ruth Spencer