The Dumpster Saga
Scholastic New Zealand, $16.99,
The Sea-wreck Stranger
Longacre Press, $18.99,
It’s hard to imagine and salutary to recall that many teenagers do lie around reading, but with the vast array of alluring technology these days novels need to be gripping to attract teenage readers. All three of these writers use their settings to free their story from contemporary New Zealand. Maurice Gee, in Salt, creates a low technology society from an unspecified time, Anna Mackenzie, in The Sea-wreck Stranger, constructs a “post-pollution” simple, rural world, and Craig Harrison opts to incorporate slices of science fiction into The Dumpster Saga.
It begins as a family comedy narrated by good- humoured 15-year-old Ben. The happily ironic Ben, whose life revolves around his attempts “to get a job and impress the girl of my dreams”, has a marvellous ability to enjoy the small things of life; he infects readers with his astute, fond observation of his family and friends, and makes us complicit in a full-hearted commitment to save Zarn, the space creature. The atmosphere in a fully functional family is quickly established by Ben’s concern for his small brother Chess, who insists his horned helmet predicts the future and makes him clever. (It does.) Every visitor to the cohesive family, each job Ben takes, every foray with his friends becomes a source of humour, often slapstick, sometimes a little frightening, always social. Zarn, by contrast, brings a delicate presence whose predictable confusion over language and the mores of earthlings provides mild amusement and cements the family’s affection for him.
Ben’s efforts at employment include a disaster delivering a house-to-house questionnaire about false teeth (“Do you have false teeth: Yes, No, and Don’t Know?”). His first client is an old lady whose budgie escapes, and without much hesitation Ben is up on the roof with gloves and a butterfly net, first looking for the budgie, then being trapped when someone takes the ladder down. Before police arrive, Ben thinks about life: “Is this as exciting as it gets? Like, is it sort of peaking about now?” An hilarious police interview ends only when Ben’s Mum arrives “in nuclear meltdown mode”.
One of Harrison’s themes is student employment rights, and several farcical set pieces allow local union representative Rodney Bickerstaff to feed Ben information about insurance and employment contracts. Rodney himself appears in a “Hot Chick” outfit, runs into Aunt Irene who, assuming he is a thief, pursues him “swinging a lethal handbag”, before addressing a supermarket employer, “Don’t be stupid. Why would a communist be dressed as a chicken?” The extravagance of the humour is matched by a reflective Ben musing over the absurdity of the universe, imagining vast lifeless spaces, and knowing that “where there are traces of life, it’s people running around dressed as bears and chickens.”
His pursuit of a girlfriend economically merges with the space mystery theme when she is told about the space creature, and her presence allows jokey exchanges based on dialogue from the novels and films they are studying at school – Jane Austen, Bogart and Night of the Living Dead are familiar to me, but teenagers will see many more literary references. This is suburban anywhere – it could be New Zealand or Australia, but, in keeping with the international imprint, is not exclusively so. The group helping Ben evade menacing heavies includes Wilmot, a recluse who can fix their old car, Pele Mbele and his older brother Stan (the car owner) from Uganda, and Dave who greets all police questioning with an invitation to meet his lawyer father.
They are a sample of today’s diverse school population, each a convincing character.
The Dumpster Saga is so simple – short sentences, clear plot lines, ample dialogue – that a nine-year-old could read and enjoy it, but complex enough in its themes and characterisation to hold the interest of sophisticated 14-year-olds.
In Salt, Gee invents a land where, over centuries, exploitative governments crush an underdog people who value democracy and periodically gain power, but misuse it as much as the previous violent dictators. Against this background, we have Pearl, escaping a forced marriage in the ruling “Company”, and Hari, from people living underground in “the Burrows”, on a mission to save his father from the salt mines. Mutually distrustful, they learn to work together against a common enemy as they discover each has the ability to communicate without verbalising. They can read each others’ minds, mentally control others, and communicate with animals – a handy talent for any arduous quest.
Gee’s neutral narrator gives a sense of inevitability. Early on we know from the vocabulary of violence and exploitation, and the cruel use of power, that this is not a good society, and that “good” rests in a simple way of life. Hari and Pearl are marked out as pure heroes who we know have been chosen to start again. Gee spells out the novel’s theme by having Hari recite a lengthy history, beginning: “Our city was Belong and our name The Belongers.” The hieratic language does not imprint authority on the story, rather it suggests the reader is unable to absorb its ideas – Gee does not trust his reader: “But Company works for all and the benefit will reach here soon. It comes down like the soft rain, even into Blood Burrows, you will see” has a familiar ring. The early anti-capitalist preaching is softened toward the end as the heroes make their way to a resolution by escaping into Eden.
Their quest begins at night, when heavily hooded Pearl escapes from her privileged family’s Company compound with her maid Tea Leaf, who has psychic powers. A Dweller from beyond the wilderness and jungle, Tea Leaf has helped Pearl develop her own telepathic powers and is to do the same for Hari. We realise towards the end of the novel that it is Tea Leaf who guides the heroes to their inner voices and true selves.
The novel is one long, tense journey of rescue, despair, immense bravery, and physical and emotional recovery. Hari and Pearl defeat the guards of the salt mines, with the help of dogs almost overcome the militia, and at last escape their deaths by careful knowledge of the tides. The unrelenting physicality is interspersed with quiet scenes showing the heroes appreciate simple pleasure and value nature. Gee’s almost prim reference to lovemaking – “They began touching each other, and soon found the way to make love” – stamps the heroes as the new leaders, and the final scenes project possibilities of a new world.
For Gee, it’s a place not only of recovery but of political and environmental purity. The book is serious, much of it exciting, but thoughtful readers may be the very people put off by Gee’s overt decrying of capitalism and industrialisation without providing a viable alternative. His novel lacks the humour and strong characterisation of Orwell’s anti-fascist books.
Anna Mackenzie, in The Sea-wreck Stranger, uses a first-person narrator, Ness, who also struggles against a constricting society. Like Gee, Mackenzie weaves environmental questions and issues of governance through the story of a closed society fearing the outside world. Here, simplicity means spurning remnants of the past: mechanisation is minimal, plastic is burned in ritual fires, the sea is regarded as dangerous and is forbidden to all. Mackenzie is adept with rural imagery to establish place – “language fit to scald the hide off a hog” – but her repeated use of “like”, as in “my legs feel like to collapse”, perhaps intended to convey the idea of archaic English, seems contrived.
Orphaned Ness works through the day on household and farm tasks for an angry step-aunt, but, unlike Hari and Pearl, she is a lonely rebel. She gives the reader a picture of life before her parents died but does not elicit the reader’s sympathy. She questions severe family authority, avoids the verbally impassive, physically dominating violent male visitors, and hides from the men out hunting for “the stranger”. Even though she is independent, resourceful and tough in attempting to save a ship-wrecked sailor (who may be hung if caught), she never quite achieves the status of hero in her own story.
Her emotional isolation, her secrecy, her resentment make her a sour self-focused story teller with whom it is hard to identify. Her self-denigrating comments – “my stubby nails”, “my grubby finger”, “who would care if I died?” – possibly intended to convince readers how hard she works, instead push us away. Potential friends – Merryn, a warm independent woman who makes honey, and her cousin Sophie and brother Ty – are not part of Ness’s inner life; she is consumed by hate for the people around her: “A surge of hate for them all wells up in me. I am not one of them.”
Older girls interested in the sea, and especially those indulging in teen angst, may enjoy independent Ness’s courageous story and her final brave triumph. Mackenzie has created an interesting coastal setting with several exciting final chapters, but, for me, the planned next volume needs a more rounded and sympathetic Ness if this first-person narrator is to continue the story.
Jill Holt is an Auckland reviewer.