Bugs, by Whiti Hereaka, is an honest narrative that confronts the reader with the everyday life of Bugs, “as in bunny”. Sixteen-year-old Bugs is struggling to hold onto childhood pal Jez, as he introduces the new girl in town, Charmaine, into their friendship. Charmaine, with her wealthy parents and “frickin’ castle” of a house, comes from a different world to Bugs and Jez and, while looking down her nose at the homes of Jez and Bugs, is too privileged to appreciate what she has. Jez sits on the opposite end of the spectrum to Charmaine; neither he nor his dreams have ever been nurtured by his parents and, when told by the schooling system that statistically he would fail, he accepts it as his future, leaving Bugs to decide whether to follow her dreams or her friendships.
Hereaka’s novel is shaped by Bugs’s assertive perspective of the trio’s mothers. Bugs sees Charmaine’s mum as a wounded puppy, who is pushed away by Charmaine despite her obvious affection and attempts to care for her daughter. Jez’s mum hasn’t earned the approval of Bugs, so much so that readers aren’t even given her name. She struggles to look after herself and so doesn’t extend love and care to her son, which Bugs criticises while Jez defends. To add further chaos to her views of parents, Bugs cannot decide whether her own mother works six days a week to support her or to get away from her. She sees herself as the thing that held her mother back and is confused about whether to rebel or work hard in order not to live the same life. Sadly, in this book the fathers of the three main characters are overlooked and so saved from the blame which falls instead to the mothers, rather unfairly so. This novel, like in life, follows the pattern in which the experiences and expectations of our parents determine our futures, and the lens of Bugs positions readers to see that effect on the three friends.
Bugs is set in modern day Taupō, somewhere that for us has always been a holiday destination with stunning views, hot beaches and water-skiing, but only “if you’ve got the bucks” as pointed out by Jez. From the get-go of Hereaka’s novel, Bugs is disdainful of tourists in Taupō, as she watches them enjoy the benefits of her town, yet remain blissfully ignorant of troubles boiling below. However, the theme of tourism spreads further than your traditional definition; Bugs compares herself to a tourist when visiting Jez’s flat, calling herself “a prissy little tourist, out sightseeing, believing I know how he lives because I’ve visited a few times” and, in turn, considering Charmaine to be doing the same in their lives. This pushed us to consider how we act as tourists, not only in new places, but also when visiting friends. Hereaka highlights the unhappy existence of the class system in New Zealand and the detachment and resultant tourism between tiers.
Let’s face it, we mostly read mainstream novels from American authors, but Whiti Hereaka with Bugs and her insight about Taupō has converted us to New Zealand fiction. It was as refreshing as a jump in the lake on a hot day to finally read a book where we were familiar with the sights and the culture of the people. The main character, Bugs, filled this book with frank honesty and nostalgia which helped us to connect with it. None of us really wants to grow up and face ever-looming adulthood, but Hereaka wrote Bugs to analyse the changes that come with growth in a way that reflected the thoughts that often flick through our minds too. We only wish that the ending was slower in developing, as it would have been more realistic had the characters who had become our friends taken time to weigh up those life-altering decisions. Just as quickly as the book had captured us, it ended, which was disappointing, but also perhaps the reason it is such a good piece of New Zealand fiction. Whiti Hereaka with her book Bugs has earnt an E8 from us.
Abby Loader and Abby Simpson are in year 13 at Wellington East Girls’ College.
Read more reviews by YA readers, from 10 March, at www.hookedonbooks.org.nz