Strangers and journeys, Norman Bilbrough

Lorraine Orman
Longacre Press, $18.99,
ISBN 9781877361814

Teresa Moran Soldier
Ken Catran
Lothian Books, $19.99,
ISBN  9780734409638

Penelope Todd
Longacre Press, $18.99,
ISBN 9781877361739

Losing it
Sandy McKay
Longacre Press, $18.99,
ISBN 9781877361746

These four young adult novels represent journeys towards self-realisation, hingeing on liberation from the past. And, despite the youth of the main characters, they mostly do have jammed and eventful pasts. Each protagonist enters a kind of wilderness – and while travelling through the dramatic and testing landscape of the present (whether an inner or an outer landscape), they learn of their humanity, their uniqueness. Even, to an extent, of their path to adulthood.

Did any of the authors have these intentions so clearly in mind at the beginning, I wonder? Do writers consciously formulate the lessons, the mythology, the learning and the transformation of their characters before beginning work on their stories? I suspect many writers don’t: that these aspects often surface, surprisingly, as the story nears completion. The point of stories often evolves organically.

Hideout is a skilfully constructed book. The material seems complex, multi-faceted, even unyielding, and I admired Lorraine Orman for pulling off what seemed a pretty unmanageable story. All the way through, I was struck by how she had picked a really tough scenario. Fifteen-year-old Roz, and Dawn, her sickly nine-year-old step-sister, run away from home (somewhere in Wellington) and hide up in a beach house in Pukerua Bay belonging to Roz’s friend’s parents. The girls are escaping from alcoholic, no-hoper Mum and her awful boyfriends. The most recent, Stan, has been particularly malevolent towards Dawn.

The girls get into the beach house okay: there’s an amount of food there, they’ve got a bit of money and a fortnight’s grace before the owners, the Naylors, come for a weekend.  But what next? I was worried. How was the author going to have the girls deal with all those empty days? No school, no family interaction …. Except that Orman does, and skilfully.

Roz is a thinker and, despite a desperate background, a really positive teenager (and she grabs the reader’s sympathy from the start). A rich interior life seems to sustain her daily survival. She meets Dan, a local who keeps a guardian eye on the girls, and Zac from the second-hand shop, another who keeps a watch out. These are kind people. Even the dairy owner who catches Roz shoplifting is a kind man. The only threat to the girls comes from their dysfunctional past: a past that is partially laid to rest at a family conference towards the end of the story, when a miserable ongoing situation finally turns into something that, although low key, is positive.

But the reader is not left just with the reassurance of a feel-good ending. The satisfaction that one derives from this story is knowing the girls survived, and were able, somehow, to struggle towards some sort of redemption and closure. It’s a novel peopled by strong characters; it contains a dose of unsentimental mysticism (to do with Kapiti Island); and Orman has created a successful story from much disparate and challenging material.

Ken Catran writes stories that are always different, always inventive, whether they are the experiences of a girl on the goldfields of Central Otago, or of a young New Zealand soldier writing to his girlfriend from the trenches of Gallipoli. One feels he is never daunted by a topic, and has all the necessary perceptions and skills to back up his audacity. He’s a plain, powerful and forthright writer. In Teresa Moran Soldier he tackles another dramatic story set in a scary arena. Teresa comes from a soldiering family, and this is the final book in the Moran quartet starting with Jacko Moran who served in Gallipoli. I haven’t read the first three and – despite the pleasure and satisfaction I have had from reading Catran in the past – I found this book disappointing.

Teresa is a tough young woman. She first meets combat in East Timor in 2001 – in a sense she is “blooded” there. The story moves between the Timor period, her service as a UN observer in Iraq (the main part of the story), and time back in New Zealand with her father – a Vietnam vet who is involved in a Commission of Inquiry into the effects of Agent Orange. Dad seems to have a strange kind of control, even a malign influence, over Teresa. So she has grown up with a legacy of war: a legacy of violence and “heroism” – depending on how patriotic your point of view is.

The first half of her story is fragmented and complex: it reads more like impressions of war rather than a fluent story set in a war zone. And the events she is caught up in don’t seem to be presented in any convincing sequence. Some of these are riveting – such as when Teresa and her Aussie unit visit a children’s hospital in Baghdad. And the story becomes more riveting when she is caught by a terrorist faction and taken hostage. She also has to contend with a New Zealand “peace warrior”, the Reverend Davidson, whom she rescues from the Iraq situation, but who later publicly betrays her.

Issues abound: issues I only partially grasped, not just because of the fragmented story line, but because the novel is written in an elliptical, terse manner. It’s almost like sophisticated shorthand. In parts the text is so summary and oblique I wondered if a young adult reader would comprehend it. I often didn’t. Teresa’s journey ends when she returns home, is able to confront her uptight father about the pains of her past (for which he seems to have been responsible), and seems able to break out of family warrior tradition. “Now I will choose where to go,” she says. Rather than have history and tradition choose for her? I couldn’t be totally sure. Catran’s is a story with fragmentary power. I just wish it had more coherence.

Zillah is a plucky, impulsive and driven young woman who returns to Roimata on the West Coast to meet up again with her lover Joseph – and to confront the demons and uncertainties of her past. In this wilderness she meets a range of men: some caring, some unpredictable, and one unstable. Hers is a curiously romantic story, with a sub-plot of guys and violence – and the resultant mess. It’s also about bush survival: a kind of Girl Alone for the new millennium, seeming to say that girls can have adventure and cope in places that were until recently bloke’s territory, and can emerge with their integrity intact.

This is the third book in Penelope Todd’s Watermark series. Joseph figures in the first two, but here he’s a strangely elusive character: part lover, part counsellor, even part-trickster. And he and Zillah have to deal with a troubled character called Martin who at one stage ties up Joseph and threatens them both with a knife. Zillah dances – a ritual designed to distract the unstable Martin. It’s a feverish and strangely manufactured drama. Joseph and Zillah then have to get Martin out and “into care”. The army comes to the rescue.

Todd’s prose is faultless and, in parts, lovely. She can create flawless and appropriate images. But her characters feel manufactured too. They have a curious made-up feel: they don’t have a real presence. And Zillah’s reasons for going to the Coast – stated in the first chapter of the first book – seem … well, unreal, too romantic. After reading that first, distant reason for her heading into the wilderness, I could never quite believe in Zillah and her subsequent adventures. Yet I think many readers will be grabbed by her journeys into love – and into the wilderness, where she finally confronts her feelings and her past – simply because she is a young woman following the reckless part of her nature, she is an adventurer and a rebel. She makes poor choices and has the courage to confront them and struggle through them.

Losing it is Sandy McKay’s first book for teenagers. Fifteen-year-old anorexic Jo is in hospital. She is a virtual prisoner in her room, and will remain so until she agrees to eat.  Her companion is a spider she’s named Charlotte. Jo remembers her mother reading E B White’s story to her a long time ago. This is mostly a book of letters, mainly exchanges between Jo and her best friend Issy – who is still leading a “normal” life as a college girl. A few other correspondents appear: short, charming, anecdotal messages from Jo’s younger brother Matt, and several sad and pleading notes from her father, whom Jo doesn’t want to see. She also keeps a diary in which she addresses her mother – a tormented woman who disappeared from home when Jo was small. Jo believes it was her fault her Mum left.

Like the diary form, presenting a story through letters can be restricting, even tending towards monotony, and can appear self-centred. But McKay really uses this form to her advantage; it’s a great narrative vehicle in her hands – and given the nature of Jo’s confinement, the only way she can tell her story. And Jo is gutsy, smart and endearing.  Her personality drives the book, pushing her journey onwards as she deals with obstacles. Of course she’s full of doubt, burdened with a self-examining nature, also a kind of ambivalent hope. Ambivalent, because she’s safe where she is.

Issy is all that a friend could be: she’s intelligent, perceptive, and really loyal. Issy loves Jo. There are other friends in the hospital – the musical Len, and the sensible and empathetic nurse aide, Dot. But it is the death of another young anorexic patient, the Goth-like Francine, that seems to really galvanise Jo. She suddenly realises she doesn’t want to die.  She also comes to realise she wasn’t the reason for Mum exiting her life.

But the story really belongs to the two friends. They’re excellent and affecting characters, and their dynamic – as well as Jo’s gritted-teeth struggle to get to the end of this particular journey – propelled me through the book. At the end, Jo revisits Charlotte’s Web, and reads: “ ‘It’s not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.’ Yeah, thinks Jo. And I know someone exactly like that.”

Losing it is a sad, chilling, uncannily perceptive story, but one that finally makes your heart feel good.


Norman Bilbrough is a Wellington writer and reviewer. 


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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Review, Young adults
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