Past Perfect

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.

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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 sychotherapist, she returned to university, taking creative writing papers at Canterbury University in preparation for giving up her day job. Since 2004, her poetry has been increasingly widely published within New Zealand, including in Landfall, Poetry New Zealand and Takahē, and broadcast on radio. It has also appeared in Australian ezines Snorkel and Eclecticism and recently been blogged by Interlitq (UK). Several anthologies contain her work. Her first novel Past Perfect was published by Wily Publications in 2010, and was released in ebook editions by Interactive Publications this year. Having an interest in the visual presentation of poetry, Karen participated, in April 2007, in an exhibition entitled feathers unfettered, featuring her series of poems about native birds of New Zealand. The exhibition was mounted with artist Galina Kim and quilter Sue Spigel, in Christchurch. 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. She is married with children, grandchildren and child-substitute: a miniature poodle.


My House Has Many Rooms

in which I wander. It will take a life
to complete the circuit. Refuge
where least expected, inspiration in a hook,
a nook, a look through tinted glass or eye.

Deep in the womb there is a room for you
and you and whomsoever I choose
to shelter. Sink into downy clouds.
Sip on evening’s fruity brew.
Admire the view.

The study’s full of fertile loam I tend.
Words come to feed, flit and hover,
beat wings on one another, poise sometimes
upon the page, dusting colour; filamentous
legs and pulsing thorax.

The gallery’s as long as many lives.
We glide through time, examine sepia faces,
sounds trapped in vinyl, pink leather
baby shoes, grandpa’s opera hat and glasses, all
dimly lit, yet vibrant.

For reflection, enter bathroom calm.
Still pool or steaming fall. The colour sky
in all my moods; mountains
I must climb, chasms that yawn,
by which to mark my stride.

In the bedroom, shadows scud
across a counterpane of tussock;
silhouette of hip and rib and thigh.
I lie alone where the hawk ascends. Below
the valley’s dam is full, begins to overflow.


it was not we but a raptor
dropped that bomb

knocked into submission
the yellow peril
a bald statement

hatred knew no bounds
nor fear

stories whispered (or not)
of men bent like bamboo canes
hollow            crippled

captor and captured
never again to sleep

the sleep of childhood

On Losing Her Way

No fanfare, no gods, a bloody afterglow.

In real time, in the winter of her life,
haze drifts in, wraps a comfortless cloak;
a damp sea mist, pierced by the occasional
glimmer of an anchor-light, briefly orienting.

It’s easy to mourn in winter, hearing her
groan under the weight of the past –
all the cares of the world bending,
and knowing there will be no respite,

no going back to summer lightness
with the future a fiery radiance at the end
of a long, long day.

Not remembering
the happiness.

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Weight 375 g
Dimensions 229 × 152 × 12 mm

Ebook, PB


ePub, mobi(kindle), PB, pdf

Customer Reviews

1-5 of 3 reviews

  • IP (Interactive Publications Pty Ltd)

    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))

    July 18, 2023
  • IP (Interactive Publications Pty Ltd)

    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

    July 18, 2023
  • IP (Interactive Publications Pty Ltd)

    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

    July 18, 2023

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