Land of Milk and Honey
Out on the Edge
Longacre Press, $18.95,
Something Wicked This Way Comes
A Canoe in the Mist
Lawrence Durrell said the novel is “a privileged communication between two spirits and the link it forges is vital to the culture of the heart and mind.” When I read a book, it has a way of inhabiting my mind – permanently, if it is well written. These books are all linked by themes of violence, evil and spiritual forces; themes that have a way of lodging in the spirit of the reader.
Land of Milk and Honey by William Taylor is a young adult novel about British war orphans struggling to cope in post-WWII New Zealand. The cover warns, “Some themes and content may disturb”. I’d be surprised if it didn’t upset younger readers; the first half of the story is gruelling. Fourteen-year-old Jake has been sent to a “better life” in New Zealand, but ends up on a dairy farm with the family from hell, the Pearsons. He is made a slave by the farmer and emotionally brutalised by his wife. Worst of all is the son, Darcy, who forces Jake to torture and kill animals and eventually beats him ragged. The most disturbing scene involves the combination of a starving calf, milk and Jake’s genitals.
Just as I was berating Taylor for dragging me through this, Jake escapes his tormentors. He finds a kinder community and is restored to health by a grumpy but compassionate doctor. Life turns around and his torturers are tried for their crimes. He finds friends, starts school and takes up rabbit shooting. In a moving episode, Jake comes to forgive one of his attackers, but the real demon to confront is Darcy. Jake’s suppressed anger turns quickly to violence when Darcy’s released from borstal.
The novel has a Dickensian quality. The Pearson’s farm is the grim workhouse with its snarling, classically evil characters. The plot takes the young hero from the gutter to success, sweeping the reader through emotional lows and highs. There were times during the torture that I wished Taylor were not such a good writer. Those scenes have “forged a link” in my mind, and I don’t know if I would wish that on children.
The theme of cruelty is explored throughout, but the morality isn’t clear. The message from the old doctor is that it’s acceptable to kill animals if you do it kindly. (However, Jake’s “healthy” interest in rabbit shooting is strange given his trauma with animals.) Jake’s violence towards Darcy has the satisfying ring of rough justice. But the doctor is angry and reminds Jake “the end product of violence is more violence”. This is a thoughtful book that stands alongside Bernard Beckett’s rewarding novel Home Boys (2003) in documenting the difficult experiences of war orphans making a new life in this country.
Domestic violence begins Anna Mackenzie’s novel Out on the Edge. Her first book High Tide was a solid thriller, so I was looking forward to this one. It plunges straight into the drama with Gary stumbling into Ali’s life with a disturbing tale of suspected murder. He and his mother have been the victims of a sadistic and abusive father. Gary has lashed out and left him for dead. In a moment of rash sympathy, school friend Ali decides to hide Gary at her family bach. In this emotionally charged context, it’s not hard for the two teens to fall for each other. But Gary is found and sent to a secure home until his parents’ crisis is resolved. Ali’s mum naturally tries to discourage her daughter from having contact with this apparently disturbed boy, but Ali’s determined to re-establish contact with her love.
The story ends on a dairy farm with a foster family (shades of William Taylor) where the teenagers resolve to continue their relationship. Mackenzie excels when it comes to dramatic incidents. The edgy opening, the creepy care facility and a tense hitchhiking scene all show skilled writing. The treatment of violence is interesting. As in Taylor’s novel, there’s a feeling that Gary’s dad deserved to be clobbered for his crimes. Oddly, Gary seems to have survived the years of abuse quite well. But his family situation remains peripheral. The mid-section sags as the story alternates between Ali (bickering with her mum) and Gary. This lack of focus is perhaps why the novel does not fully satisfy as a thriller or teenage realism.
As a teenager, my favourite writer was Ray Bradbury. His supernatural fantasies were invariably set in creepy small-town America where diabolical forces simmered. His most memorable novel about evil was Something Wicked This Way Comes (recently revisited in the television series Carnivale). Ken Catran’s novel of the same title (from Macbeth) is also set in a small town (possibly Canterbury’s Waimate), nestled in sleepy foothills. Seventeen-year-old Brad is tasting independence, his parents overseas, his girlfriend, Eithne, ready for love, and with “cool” status at high school. He’s suddenly assailed by violent, demonic dreams and urges that turn into daytime visions.
At first Brad struggles to believe that evil can be a tangible power. The liberal priest tells him that evil is just intolerance and bank charges. A mysterious old lady (an angel?) challenges him to believe in absolute good and evil. He and Eithne are confronted by demons in a haunted house, and learn that the Dark Lord is planning a major offensive on the town. The plot turns into a thriller as they race to identify the leader of the Black Coven, which has infiltrated the community.
Red herrings abound, but so do genuine clues, and the final revelation of the “Black Adept” is entirely satisfying. In horror tradition the devil’s minions are defeated by their own trickery, although the teenagers’ exorcism-by-dance is a bit limp (give me a decent fight to the death).
Although this isn’t a psychological study, Catran does make a blatant link between emerging teenage sexuality and wickedness. One of the sexiest girls in school transforms into a harpy and teases Brad: “wicked is exciting, wicked is a come-on.” It seems the more forbidden the fruits, the easier it is for the demons to have an influence. But Brad realises he must take responsibility for his own desires rather than blame the demons.
There’s a surfeit of supernatural motifs, the best touch being two demonic magpies who taunt Brad. The religious doctrine is vague, as befits supernatural fiction. God and the Devil are not named but it’s clear that this is a battle between spiritual powers. Catran is good at merging genres, as he did so cleverly with his recent sci-fi mystery Protus Rising, although the writing isn’t as subtle as Ray Bradbury’s.
The volcanic violence in A Canoe in the Mist by Elsie Locke is all geological. Collins has chosen this 1984 novel for their Modern New Zealand Classics series (although it was originally published in England), and I have to agree with its classic status. It’s a deftly written historical account, which covers a lot of cultural ground. The event is the 1886 eruption of Mt Tarawera, which destroyed one of the modern wonders of the world, the Pink and White Terraces.
Two 11-year-old girls meet on a tourist trip to Lake Rotomahana where a Maori guide, Sophia, introduces them to the local customs. The friendship between the girls is a little twee at first, with visits to “pretty villages”, and picnics with ginger beer and “gay singing”. Fortunately the tone changes when a ghostly canoe appears on the lake and an ancient tohunga predicts disaster.
The second half of the book is one sustained climax as the ground opens and belches fireballs. The tourists are trapped in a hotel while ash and mud pelt down on the village. One by one the rooms of the building collapse around them, and they are driven outside into a hail of flaming rocks. Many lives are lost, but the tohunga, who lives closest to the volcano, survives. He’s taken to an English hospital against his will, and, removed from his sacred mountain, he dies.
The novel integrates Maori language and tradition. There’s a lovely scene in a bilingual schoolhouse, when the teacher shows the native children their first elephant. The spiritual world of the Maori is given equal weight alongside the Christian beliefs of the English. When the girls question Sophia’s belief in spirits, she says, “We never scorn a legend.”
The link between human behaviour and natural violence is explicit. The tohunga warns of disaster because his “people have turned away from their traditions” and invaded tapu areas of land. Similarly, the Europeans have begun to desecrate the Terraces and the landscape. The earth resists with violence. The cover design is elegant but the pale type used in the book cheapens the production. Intermediate-aged readers will still find this an exciting read and the historical maps and diagrams lend verisimilitude.
Raymond Huber is a teacher and writer in Dunedin.