Sasscat to Win
McIndoe Publishers, $16.95
Adoption in some form has long been a staple of story-telling for the young – especially where it concerns a goosegirl or a ploughboy who are brought up by peasants, but turn out to be of royal blood. But in Sasscat to Win, set in 1990s New Zealand, Paula Boock turns the old tales on their heads. Sass and her older sister Win live with their bus-driver father and cleaner mother in ‘a square (really square) house in Arawa, with beige carpet and wood veneer walls … two mortgages, one bookcase (of Reader’s Digests) and a selection of department store paintings’. How can this be? Sure enough, their secret belief turns out to be half-true: Win is indeed adopted – but Sass is not. Win goes off to London to find her birth mother, leaving a furious Sass behind to cope with a turbulent and crucial growing-up summer as best she can.
This is almost entirely Sass’s story, and as such, it works. The peculiar but magnetic new neighbours stop just short of being overdone. The all-too-believable sequence of events and emotions which leads to Sass’s near-rape by Trent, a wealthy private school hoon, is particularly well constructed, as is its complex aftermath. Even her rather far-fetched means of escape (she’s an expert in tae kwon doe) is effective; identifying with her plight, young female readers without such skills would be confronted with working out what to do if they faced something similar – or perhaps how to avert the danger in the first place. (It would be nice if the real-life Trents read and thought about all this too, but don’t count on it.)
The wealthy get a bad press all round: on the other side of the world, Win is experiencing a parallel disillusionment with her snobbish birth mother. A dramatic climax reconciles both sisters to the humble working-class parents who brought them up.
Only a handful of books aimed at the same audience avoid such over-simplifications altogether. But when it comes to the central plot device of Win’s adoption, they reach a level that I found unacceptable. Everything about it is very strange indeed. Setting aside the fact that by 1975 there was a ‘baby shortage’, and a blue-ribbon baby like Win would have gone to an equally blue-ribbon couple, it is scarcely credible that by such a late date Pete and Madge would have decided not to tell Win anything about her adoption, until she forces them to admit the truth eighteen years later. It is almost equally unlikely that her birth mother (whose name and present whereabouts they conveniently know – and tell Win straight away) ‘had always known where Win was’.
But fiction is fiction. What concerns me much more is that whereas Sass’s complex, contradictory reactions to the situation are skilfully drawn, others’ feelings are barely sketched in – and most of the lines look completely wrong. Whatever the circumstances, adoption always runs very deep indeed, and Boock’s cavalier use of it lets an otherwise good book down badly.
Anne Else is a writer and editor, and author of A Question of Adoption: Closed Stranger Adoption in New Zealand 1944-1974. A review of her most recent publication, Women Together, appears on pages 1-2.