Whizzbangs and big bangs, Fleur Beale

Follow the blue
Brigid Lowry
Allen & Unwin, $19.95,
ISBN 186508400X

Letters from the Coffin Trenches
Ken Catran
Random House, $16.95,
ISBN 1869415094

The Sleeper Wakes
David Hill
Puffin, $15.95,
ISBN 0141313242

The High Wind Blows
David Hill
Puffin, $15.95,
ISBN 0141313366

Follow the blue is one cool book. It’s a coming-of-age story set in Perth and, as the back cover blurb says, is a “funny, touching story, sparkling with bright summer colours”. Brigid Lowry is a poet as well as a writer, and the writing does indeed sparkle. It’s full of light, colour and humour. She takes the show don’t tell rule and blows it to smithereens. Bec, the fifteen-year-old protagonist, tells her story in a mix of recall and current action.

This is a visually interesting book to read. There are no conventional chapters. Each new chapter is signalled by a double space and then the title. In addition, text within the chapter is presented in small chunks and interspersed with snippets in a different font – such as “WHAT TO DO WITH YOUR HAIR”, which ends: “If your mother says it looks fabulous change it immediately.” Teenagers could well find the piece on “HOW TO FUDGE A LIT ESSAY” particularly useful.

The title Follow the blue comes from Bec’s idea that life has many strands and is like coloured balls of wool thrown together in a basket. The individual strands in the basket and in life become untidy and tangled. This story is where she follows the blue strand.

Big things happen in Bec’s life when she’s fifteen. Her father is hospitalised with depression and, when he recovers, her parents go away for six weeks leaving a housekeeper in charge of the three children. Bec is tired of being sensible and responsible. Josh is eleven and knows all sorts of strange facts such as, if you put a raisin in a glass of champagne it rises to the top and sinks to the bottom over and over again. Bing is nine (“My sister, Bing, is fierce.”). Bec wins some money, dyes her hair red, falls in love, throws a party where good and bad things happen.

The characters jump off the pages – I particularly liked Bec’s mother, the celebrity cook, whom Bec loves even though she is wary of her in “Control-A-Go-Go Mode”. The big questions of adolescence are there, real but not heavy: finding yourself, friendships, drugs, falling in love and sex. Bec and her friends know the theory of condoms, having practised in class with condom and carrot, but reality turns out not to be quite so easy, reports the friend who “lost her vees”. The book concludes with short, first person, diary-type entries from all the kids in the story, finishing with Bec’s part summary, part hopes and plans for the future. This ending is a very satisfying device for the reader because you get to find out answers to questions Bec couldn’t have answered.

Brigid Lowry was born and grew up in Auckland, lived in Australia for 30 years, and is now back living in Nelson. A previous book, Guitar Highway Rose, was shortlisted for a number of major prizes in Australia and won a readers’ choice award. Our writing scene will be the richer for her presence.

2

The next three books each give huge chunks of information along with the story, but in each case, it’s the story that prevails. The information on World War I, on erupting volcanoes, on space is all there in full and satisfying detail but it never gets in the way. And that is fine storytelling.

Letters from the Coffin Trenches, Ken Catran’s version of the Anzac story, deals with hard-hitting misery, disillusionment, and stark horror, but, despite this, is very readable. The letters of the title are exchanged between a couple of naive, idealistic young people, both in their final year at school, both seventeen. They believe utterly in the rightness of the war and in its glory. Their dreams and aspirations are shaped by Morte d’Arthur and Joan of Arc.

Instead of returning to school, Harry runs away to Wellington to enlist in the army. Jessica writes to him: “What you are doing is so right and brave.” It’s not long before she too escapes from the shelter of school and family and enrols to train as a nurse so that she can do her bit.

We see both Harry and Jess responding to situations in terms of contemporary societal values. Harry is cool towards a fellow traveller whom he discovers has a German name. Jess gives a white feather to a young man who speaks against the war and then is mortified to discover he is a soldier who had lost his leg on the Marne. She begins to realise there are things she should know about but doesn’t. Gradually, their understanding deepens, and their attitudes change. Poignantly, Jess is the only one Harry feels able to write the truth to. He feels he must protect his parents from the horror and misery of his life in the coffin trenches.

By using both Jess’s and Harry’s letters, Catran adds the extra dimension of life at home, where most people still hold an unshakeable belief in the rightness and glory of the war. Jess’s letter to Harry about how she emptied the hall at the Patriotic Convention by describing the reality of wounds is a gem. The letter to Jess from Harry’s friend, telling her the truth of how her sweetheart died, is particularly moving. Let this be a warning to any teacher reading the book aloud to a class. Tissues will be needed. This letter follows the one from the cowardly captain to Harry’s parents, assuring them that Harry’s death from a sniper’s bullet was immediate and painless – the juxtaposition sharply underlining the theme of official deception and deceit.

The writing throughout is restrained, evokes the manners and values of the times, and fits Harry’s and Jess’s backgrounds. This is an informative book, but, more than that, it is a moving story that offers no soft ending, thanks both to the flu epidemic and the sentiments and date of the final letter.

3

David Hill’s The Sleeper Wakes and The High Wind Blows are both fast-paced, page-turning thrillers. In the first, Mt Taranaki begins to shake. A Level 1 alert is called. The shaking dies down, starts again, dies again, until finally it’s all happening. I grew up south of Inglewood, and our farm would have been right in the path of the devastation Hill so graphically describes. I remember that every year or so, there’d be stories in the Taranaki papers about how the mountain could erupt at any time. The general response of us locals – caught so well by Hill – was yeah yeah.

In Hill’s novel, the mountain has presence and personality, sketched in by the main character Corey’s feelings for it, and given depth by the brief touches of mythology from Riki, the young Maori DOC worker. The menace and threat of an eruption build up – then nothing happens, and we see people at their worst. Crowd mentality rules. The authorities get blamed for not being able to give exact information on the impending – or possibly not impending – natural disaster. The details about the process of an eruption are fascinating. Comparisons drawn between what might happen here and what did happen with Mt St Helens add to the sense of brooding unease. The ending is a good, satisfying adventure where Corey also gets the girl – and, to my partisan relief, the mountain bulges to the west rather than the east. Inglewood, ash-covered and shaken, survives.

Parents are always a problem for kids in kids’ books. They can also be a problem for the author: what to call them? Here, the narration veers uneasily between Mr/Mrs Lockyer, his Mum/his Dad and Corey’s Mum/Dad. I also found Corey less of a rounded character, particularly for the first half of the book, than Adam in The High Wind Blows. Those reservations aside, The Sleeper Wakes is a good read, especially if you come from Taranaki or ever think you might go there. It’s also a book that tells a New Zealand story, set in a New Zealand landscape. To have the town you live in named in a book is exciting and validating for a kid – even if that town does get buried under volcanic ash. It’s a pity there isn’t a map – the story is so rooted in a specific landscape that it would be good to be able to check which places would be threatened in a westward eruption, or the exact location of the Pouakai Ranges.

The High Wind Blows is the story of Adam, a space nut, who along with three other kids, has won the chance to watch a satellite launch from Mt Dauntless in the South Island. While they’re there, religious terrorists (“God’s Soldiers”) break into a nuclear missile site in the US and threaten to explode the missiles. Then it seems all they want to do is talk to governments to get them to realise that space exploration is like smashing into God’s house. Could easily be real? Yes – and Adam, the other three teenagers, and Mt Dauntless get mixed up in the aftermath. The climax is brilliantly tense and nerve-stretching.

Hill uses first person narration in this book, and it’s a smoother story than The Sleeper Wakes. Adam is a very believable, nerd-type character totally fanatical about his pet obsession, the sun, or, as he calls it: “Our middle-aged, middle-sized, Class G star.” The other three teenagers are equally obsessed: Dipak with stars, Georgie with space exploration, and Hannah with the big bang theory. Or maybe Hannah is something else, given the little silver cross she wears. Will this complicate things for Adam as he finds her more and more attractive?

I can’t believe that I found a book full of information about space so absorbing. (I’m trying to resist writing space junk – the one space term I know.) As with The Sleeper Wakes, this book is highly recommended for anyone who likes a quick-moving thriller and enjoys learning stuff at the same time.

 

Fleur Beale is a Wellington writer.

 

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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Review and Young adults
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