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Past Perfect is a story of love and loss, prejudice and resolution, as well as the search for selfhood.

Prompted by a brush with mortality, her children approaching adulthood and the relationship with her husband being tested, Sue Spencer embarks on a search for meaning in her life–for a better sense of who she might be.

Her quest takes her to to Akaroa, to France and back, tracing her genealogy, but her discoveries are unexpected and place further pressure on strained family relationships.

Set in modern day Christchurch and France, with a backdrop of the 1840 French settlement of Akaroa, the novel is enriched by the diversity and complexity that make up our past.


Karen Zelas

Karen Zelas lives in quake-struck Christchurch. A former psychiatrist and psychotherapist, she returned to university, taking creative writing papers at Canterbury University in preparation for giving up her day job.

In 2009, she was the recipient of a Creative Communities grant. Karen is editor of the anthology Crest to Crest: Impressions of Canterbury, prose and poetry (Wily Publications, 2009). For the last five years, Karen has been Fiction Editor of Takahē literary magazine and chairs the Takahē Collective Board. Her stories have been published in a wide variety of magazines and anthologies, and broadcast on radio.

She is married with children, grandchildren and a child-substitute: a miniature poodle.

BuyIP Past Perfect - Karen Zelas
ISBN 9781922120311 (Paperback, 326pp) AUD $33 USD $25 NZD $37 GBP £16 EUR €19
ISBN 9781921869938 (eBook) AUD $16 USD $14 NZD $18 GBP £10 EUR €12

The life journeys of two women weave the fabric of this part-historical, part-present-day New Zealand novel.
The weft is the Frenchwoman Brigitte Dujardin, who arrived in Akaroa in 1840. The warp is her descendant – contemporary Sue Spencer, who is tracking her genealogy.
Zelas judiciously employs the parallel storyline technique to good effect. She achieves complementary roles for each, and harmoniously merges the historical echoes into the 21st century.

The two women’s lifestyles are drawn as a study of contrasts, yet they are bonded by more than a bloodline. Both confront relationship difficulties, mortality and racial, specifically anti-Maori, prejudice.

Dujardin flouts the social and moral conventions of her time, and takes a bold, almost confrontational stand on several issues. Spencer discovers kinship and finds her spine in the face of family opposition. While Dujardin’s chosen path was the stonier, Spencer’s track is strewn with more insidious obstacles.

Their experiences resonate against a background of historical and contemporary Akaroa, and the plot moves to France and back to New Zealand. This exploration of how two women mature and find inner independence is sensitive and trenchant.

Threads of hypocrisy and racism provide lively trigger points. In particular, Zelas takes a healthy swipe at the double standards and posturing of a white, academic, middle-class Kiwi male. Her aim is unerring.

She has produced a novel that sits comfortably in its New Zealand skin. The storyline maintains a steady pace while ranging over some thought-provoking aspects of our heritage and current social climate. Key characters are fleshed out into realistic personalities, and there is an acute eye and ear for nuance.

With poetry and short stories already in her literary portfolio, Zelas’ foray into the novel genre ha[s] achieved depth.

- Bronwyn Dorreen, Waikato Times (republished in Historical Novel Society (Sydney Chapter))

Brigitte's life is revealed through the letters she writes home to her mother. I immediately became attached to this pioneering woman and had to resist the temptation to skip from letter to letter in order to follow her story.
However, the main character is Sue Spencer, an academic's wife living in modern-day Christchurch. ... The husband was arrogant, the son was an inconsiderate delinquent and Sue herself seemed to be a "doormat". Fortunately, Sue's character develops throughout the book and she turns out to be rather interesting. She becomes stronger and more self-assured, more like Brigitte in fact.
I enjoyed Past Perfect because of its history and mystery. Brigitte's letters bring nineteenth century Akaroa alive in vivid detail. And because of the way the letters cleverly intersperse Sue's story, we eventually discover the connection between Brigitte and Sue.

Even though this is a work of fiction, it is so well-researched and well-written that one could easily believe it all happened.

- Rocky Hudson, Amazon reader

The reading describes the main character Sue's reaction upon seeing her great great great grandmother's cottage, whole and perfect in the township of Akaroa. She imagines the cottage as it was in Brigitte's day and the present landscape falls away in Sue's mind. It is a lovely and evocative summary of the entire story. 

The protagonist Sue is a wife and mother and seemingly defined by those roles until her marriage gets a little rocky and for diversion she decides to investigate the unknown link with her past and trace her French Ancestors who she quickly finds were early settlers in Akaroa, near Christchurch. 

Sue's story runs parallel to Brigitte's story of triumph, heartbreak and adversity as a pioneering wife and mother more than a hundred years earlier, told through letters to her mother. As Sue investigates the connections we see her grow and develop and we also see a portrait of a marriage, similar to many other couples who find they've grown apart once the children no longer need them. I'm pleased Karen didn't take the easy way out with this and the book is much stronger for it.

I found this a very satisfying book. I love Akaroa myself and the descriptions of the landscape are lyrical and "spot on." The interweaving of the two stories, and the ultimately satisfying (if not quite happy) endings for both women was just what I was hoping for. 

I highly recommend this book.

– Jill McCaw, New Zealand Society of Authors, Canterbury branch



To Karen's website

Other works by Karen published by Interactive Publications:

Night's Glass Table



from Chapter 1

The call had come as Sue was locking the back door. It
was the beginning of what was to be an exhausting day.
Should she go back? Ben already had the car engine
running, watching her indecision. His toot on the horn
was the decider. Sue unlocked the door, deactivated
the alarm and snatched the phone from its bed. Now
she was wishing she had let it ring. Faced with Ben’s
agitation, she had slammed the car door and said it was
a wrong number. ‘It was nothing,’ she added, more to
soothe herself than inform him.

Sue was to accompany Ben and his colleagues, Gaye and
Hank Steinberg, from the US of A, on a day trip to Akaroa.
Ben’s standard tour for overseas visitors. As usual, Sue
would be the dutiful and supportive wife. She loved the trip,
the place, but would prefer to choose her company. Three
hours in a car with three academics, each vying to out-quote
the other, would be enough, she thought, to induce ennui in
anyone. However, it could be interesting, even entertaining
– occasionally it was, in a perverse sort of way; a giggle at
someone else’s expense might please her today. Now. Since
the phone call.

Sue let her eye be drawn along the footpath as the car
moved through the Saturday morning streets; watched a
youth saunter, hands in pockets, head lolling forward and
bouncing each time he planted a heel on the ground, as if his
pendulous lower lip was yanking it down. He looked Maori
or Pacific Island – she often found it difficult to distinguish the
two. She wondered where he had been and where he was
going at such a slow, solitary but deliberate pace. She envied
him his purposefulness …

Ben’s voice cut into her reverie.

‘You’re looking very nice today.’

Nice? Sue shuddered at the word. Food was the only
thing to be described as “nice”. A high school English
teacher had drummed that in.

‘Don’t I usually?’ Her tone was sharp.

‘That’s not what I meant.’ Ben humphed out a puff of
air. ‘And you know it,’ he added. ‘I mean you look pretty.
Your hair …’ He reached across and squeezed a handful of
her brown curls. ‘When the sun catches it …’

The warmth of her husband’s words seeped into Sue
and placated her. Ben really was a dear. She should not snap
at him. He did his best, though his best could sometimes
be very irritating. She squeezed out the word ‘Sorry’ and
lapsed into thought.

‘Is that Sue Spencer?’ the woman had asked in a shrill,
nasal voice. Surely they could employ someone with a soft,
calming voice, who neither called you “dear” or “love”,
nor was condescending or over-familiar. Businesslike but
understanding was what the job required. Maybe she
should apply for a job as a clinic receptionist … But the
idea vanished as quickly as it came.

When they arrived at the Grand Chancellor Hotel, Gaye
and Hank Steinberg were waiting outside in animated
conversation. The left sleeve of Hank’s silver anorak was
pushed up and he was stabbing a thick finger at his watch.
Sue felt more than saw Ben’s quick gesture of anxiety – his
fingers raking his fine, fair hair off his forehead – and she
placed a hand on his knee. She watched their guests through
the windscreen: Tweedledum and Tweedledee, in matching
jackets, matching sneakers, and carrying matching daypacks.
They turned and smiled, eyes scanning, as the car drew in
to the curb. Ben yanked on the handbrake and flung open
the driver’s door, one foot on the tarseal before the engine
coughed to silence.

‘Come on,’ he said to Sue, and slammed the door, reaching
the pavement in a few long-legged strides.

Sue was reluctant to emerge from her cocoon of steel
and glass. She hesitated, her hand on the door handle,
watching Hank pump Ben’s limp hand, the ripple travelling
all the way to his shoulder. A liveried doorman stood behind
them, completing the tableau. Ben glanced over his shoulder
and Sue shrank back in her seat; she felt invisible but knew
she was not. Gaye stepped to one side to peer around Ben,
pulling Sue out of herself, back to reality, back to her duty.
She forced a smile and pushed the passenger door open. Each
step was an effort; the cool morning air pressed against her,
seemingly crammed with more molecules per cubic metre
than ever before.

Sue heard the relief in Ben’s voice as he introduced her.
‘We’ve heard so much about you already,’ Gaye said.
Perhaps Sue’s surprise showed in her face. ‘All good,’ she

‘And you’re just as lovely as expected,’ said Hank,
extending a large paw. Sue took it gingerly; it was warm, soft
and gentle, in contrast to her expectation. She thought
of her father, not as he was now but as he used to be: a big
teddy bear. Something shifted inside her and she smiled.
Perhaps the day would not be as bad as she had feared.
‘It’s nice to meet you both.’ She touched Ben’s sleeve.
‘Gaye or Hank might like to sit in the front.’ The gratitude
in Ben’s grey eyes was Sue’s reward. It said he knew she
understood that his surety was a sham, that beneath his
authoritative, some might say arrogant, exterior crept
a timid little boy, frightened of putting a foot wrong. No
matter how high Ben might climb, he would feel a fraud at
risk of exposure. And Sue knew, where she believed Ben
did not, that this held him back and would never allow him
to reach the top of the tree. ‘For the view,’ she added. ‘I can
see it any time.’

Sue felt noble offering her place, the favoured position,
but also hoped her offer would not be accepted. She could
not imagine sharing the back with Gaye or Hank today,
being forced into polite conversation, while trying to stop
her body merging with a larger-than-life companion. In the
front, the seat would curve about her; she could drift with her
thoughts and let the academic conversation float by; it was
so long now since she had been part of the university world
that she did not believe she had anything to contribute.

‘Oh, no, no,’ said Gaye, a tremor passing the length of her
squat body as she shook her head. ‘We’ll be just fine in the
back. Don’t you worry.’

Sue wondered just how transparent she might be.

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