Thoughtful thrills, Jill Holt

Fierce September
Fleur Beale
Random House, $19.99,
ISBN 9781869793289

Guardian of the Dead 
Karen Healey
Allen & Unwin, $19.99,
ISBN 9781741758801

Mandy Hager
Random House, $19.99,
ISBN 9781869795221


When do young people have the chance to engage in philosophical thinking, to contemplate the nature of democracy? A few schools offer a Socratic introduction to philosophy, or discussion courses focused on moral choices, but teenage fiction such as these three intense novels can motivate ongoing complex thinking about how we live.

Fierce September is Fleur Beale’sthird Juno novel. Issues of control and power are central to her talk-fest thriller where suspense pervades the novel but, most unusually, every event is discussed and dissected until a reasonable path for action in a caring society is clear. Taris, the experimental island community, undergoes a forced evacuation when the life-support systems collapse. The “settlers” begin finding out about the world they left a generation ago and face unpalatable facts about their own history. They are guests in the original Aotearoa, some time after the disintegration of the world as a result of pollution, pandemics and technological failure.

The Taris community is riven by dissension as the settlers experience hostility against refugees from their hosts: armed protesters and a bomb explosion, and they are shunned as the bearers of yet another virulent epidemic. Here Beale’s complex narrative strategies expand into action as the Taris group discuss how to keep safe, what sorts of changes they need to make to fit in with Aotearoa. Juno, the 14-year-old protagonist, has her story enriched by her close family and by her peers. Their ingrained habit of rational discussion ensures many points of view are offered; readers are encouraged to think. And the gender mix means there are boys with strong views as well as girls.

The teenagers launch a spirited, informed plan to defeat the virus.It demonstrates rational thinking and decision-making, and Beale adds complexity by the use of thought transference. Juno can exchange thoughts directly with her young sister Hera and with Marba, her learning stratum leader. Hera can predict the future, sense evil or good intentions in people and have a silent conversation with Juno. It is a small but powerful strand that bolsters the narrative and provides sudden plot turns. These three concentric circles of narration create metaphorical support for the thinking reader as they ensure a multiplicity of viewpoints. The matter-of-fact tone of the book is maintained – this is not the spirit world.

The Taris people are proud to be democrats – anyone can call a meeting – however the ethos of egalitarianism, love and support is not part of the rulers’ lives. They find that Taris was full of “secrecy, murder and control” and Juno’s reminder that “We all helped each other. Nobody had more than anybody else” seems of questionable value when the deaths are considered. She herself is the subject of two murder attempts by one of the leaders. The atmosphere of calm could have engendered a slow novel, but the underlying tensions in all parts of the community erupt as Juno and her stratum begin searching for the criminals as well as seeking a cure for the epidemic.

Beale, like Mandy Hager, highlights major contemporary issues, including refugees, climate change, technology usage, the value of hard work, and environmental sensitivity.

Maori legend adaptation drives the plot of Karen Healey’s Guardian of the Dead, but it is narrator Ellie’s search for selfhood which distinguishes the book. Her stories give her agency and power both in her focalisation of the narrative and in her friendships. Fulfilling her role to broach Hine-nui-te-po in order to save the population of the North Island, she recalls the waters of Lethe when a Maori friend reminds her she must not drink the water or she will never return.

Such a neat overlap between Greek and Maori myth belies a basic difficulty:all traditional pre-texts retold in a contemporary story-frame bring with them their own non-western narrative forms which may undermine a western meta-narrative. The pre-text involving Maori spirit/mythical beings dominates the plot, but initially the strong narrative voice is a female Pakeha one, and the major male protagonist is Mark, who enacts cultural estrangement each time he disappears to the spirit world.

The story begins in a Christchurch co-educational boarding school. Ethnicity awareness, most potently Maori, is prevalent. After the initial flurry of crises, the boarding school culture fades; magic of Maori origin enters the novel. Ellie, thinking about traditional misogynistic classical roles for women, realises Mark has used his power to make her forget and experiences this as a betrayal of her selfhood. Is Ellie mad, then, to pursue Mark?

Not if she’s needed to defend her country! It seems no surprise to the teenagers to find themselves in a war against ancient Maori spiritual elements; the patupaiarehu need to take human lives in the battle to regain immortality. Ellie, Mark, Ivy, the Eritrean classics teacher and three bikers, as well as diverse magicians, Maori, Asians and others answer a call to forestall the patupaiarehu. In the context of the long battle Ellie redefines her independence.

Through every setting – high-school theatre or the cliffs at Te-Kauae-o-Maui – Healey establishes the ethos of a diverse nation. Conventional hierarchies of ethnicity, class, gender and sexual orientation are ignored in a world where some people have the power to move between human and spirit. In supporting the move to battle, “the tall Asian man” says, “First because this land is or is now our home and pride”, and Chinese Iris declares, ‘This is my country too.” “My country” is partly Maori, varied in religion and ethnicity, and a world where spirits roam free. Everyone is welcome.

Healey, in her effort to amalgamate Maori myth with a contemporary story, presents readers with a resolution challenging both strands of the story. Ellie is a hero, her self-identity and physical strength assured, yet she is separated from Mark, now a taniwha. In an echo from dystopian novels, this ending provides no certainty. Adolescent readers will construct their own meanings.

Resurrection, the third of Hager’s Blood of the Lamb trilogy, is prefaced by a couplet from Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man: “For modes of faith, let graceless zealots fight;/His can’t be wrong whose life is in the right.” Thus complimenting and guiding her readers, Hager draws attention to “the nature of power and control” in the context of Maryam’s quest and in the socio/political setting of Micronesian islands.In keeping with the adolescent coming-of-age genre, young narrator Maryam establishes agency through social action. In the two earlier books she has initiated a sustained resistance against the oppression and cruelty of the Apostles’ rule in her home island. In Resurrection she returns with the cure for an epidemic, determined to eradicate the disease and to persuade the Apostles to adopt a more democratic gentler administration.

Maryam’s quest begins when she is a captive in a vicious refugee prison camp on an isolated Melanesian phosphate island. This period alone is central to the establishment of a true hero: yes, she is determined to liberate her people but “in truth, she just wanted to go back because it was her home.”

From the moment she steps off the dinghy onto the island she begins a solid period of growing through the natural world. She revels in her first swim – the sea is at once a source of freedom and a “bed of jewels”; she feels as if all her senses had revived, “she was back in the natural world she loved. Back in control.”

At the Buddha monument, which enshrouds the whole population killed by the territorials, she prays, burns candles for the dead and sleeps the night on the giant Buddha. She has atoned for the genocide. The next day she expertly weaves pandanus leaves to roof her house frame. As she catches and cleans a mullet for dinner she is “aware of a primal sense of power at work inside her”. She asserts that good and evil are determined by “people’s choices, not their race, spiritual beliefs or place of birth”. Her strong home-building,self-sufficiency and inner peace have readied her to complete her quest and defeat the Apostles.

Throughout the novel, democracy and virtue are promoted as individual activities outside religious or civil institutions. We see this operating through action and in language. In all three volumes of Blood of the Lamb, the Apostles speak in an archaic, hieratic voice using the structure and vocabulary of the Bible; their cruel, violently worded Rules thus taint Christianity. Maryam’s own language becomes less elevated; kind prison guard Charlie speaks a rough slang; good, gentle prisoner Aanjay has a lilting soft voice.

Maryam’s cure for the epidemic is successful, yet she is unable to escape arrest by the Apostles. She is accused of devilry and hauled onto a stage with three crosses before a village crowd. It is a ritualised ceremony designed to end in death. The Christian symbolism reinforces Maryam’s stern disgust with the Apostles and their “Lord”.  Fearful the crowd will kill her, she reminds herself, “It’s how we choose to lead our lives that matters, good or bad … . the only thing that matters is that they act from love, not hate.” And she herself proceeds without violence and turns the accusations back to the accusers.

These three writers have drawn on varieties of characters who think critically about democracy and violent dictatorships, cultural diversity, organised religion, technology use and refugees, among other current issues. All are fast moving as well as thought-provoking, and would be attractive to a wide range of readers.


Jill Holt is an Auckland reviewer. 


Fierce September won the young adult fiction award in this year’s New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards.

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Posted in Literature, Review, Young adults
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