Grappling with the world, Jill Holt

Dirt Bomb
Fleur Beale
Random House, $19.95,
ISBN 9781869795467


The Bridge
Jane Higgins
The Text Publishing Company, $26.00,
ISBN 9781921758331


Calling the Gods 
Jack Lasenby
HarperCollins, $24.99,
ISBN 9781869509484


These three novels shortlisted for the senior fiction category in the New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards offer entertainment and enlightenment of a high order. Each paints an abbreviated yet dense picture of teen lives as the urge toward adulthood is enacted in story. In each genre – a realist text, a totalitarian dystopia and a time-slipping post-apocalyptic epic – the protagonists are engaged with tough, immediate, physical and often violent lives as they build an individual identity and grapple with the world.

A present-day realism rules in DirtBomb.Fleur Beale’s narrator, Jake, begins as a mildly rebellious and seriously resentful 16-year-old living in a small rural town. He is certain his mother and grandfather exploit him – he has to help with the cooking and the cleaning up – and he is penniless, since neither his hardworking solo Mum nor his absent gambler father will give him a regular income. But his humour and his jokey loving relationship with his cat endear him to readers, while Beale uses the car and engine world to validate male teenage talk.

Initially, Jake maintains his dignity by refusing to work, but, faced with the humiliation of not being in the car-wrecking trio, he tries milking cows and discovers that he likes working with dogs and cows and he gets paid well. As they drive the car to collapse, the boys assume adult roles while they negotiate for spare parts and drift toward independence from parents. They compete and mediate with friends, work for funds, finesse their driving skills and have a desperately good time with the fast-breaking-up car.

Beale shows an affinity here with Lasenby’s celebration of the physical, limbic nature of the children’s lives in Calling the Gods. Both authors use the mastery of the solid world as a path to maturity.

Beale’s version of teenage selfhood reaches beyond individual effort; she shows how Jake’s love for animals enables his move to a generous sympathy for his own family. His personal achievements are those which propel him from wheelies to a broader social role – he gives his mother money from his gambling father, he knows he must save to pay taxes and he begins a relationship with a girl who has “a smile that went straight into my blood”.

This is a totally accomplished book for older readers with a sense of humour and an interest in cars. It’s a wry look at another of us humans making our way in life.

The Bridge’s Nik is a strangely clever, wildly brave and loyal orphan unsure of his name. Rejected from the elite selection of departing students at boarding school, he discovers he is wanted by the ISIS (security) not for service but for investigation. A bomb destroys the school, killing two of a group of close friends. This is no fairytale, rather a long-lasting war between the richer Cityside on one side of the river and the remnant factions of a rebellion on the Southside.

Nik and good friend Fyffe cross one of seven gated bridges from Cityside to the Southside to rescue Fyffe’s young brother Sol kidnapped by the Hostiles. Nik abandons his simmering need to uncover his family origins and joins Fyffe in a frightening search for Sol that values friends over family history. He feels alone. His frequent answer to questions from thugs or authorities is “I’m no-one and I don’t fit anywhere”. Nik and Fyffe, sliding from one unoccupied house to another, discover the whole of the Southside is in chaos before they are absorbed into a political group who may know where Sol is.

The heroes witness The Crossing, a ceremony calling home the dead. Song, dancers called Pathmakers, and a funeral pyre complete the ritual. Nik, who is moved by the rites, hears the chanting of the crowd “Glory and Freedom and Death”, and, recalling his dead friends, continues his thinking about peace – negotiate, collaborate, bargain – anything rather than killing and death. Nik’s reflections blend with conflict, keeping the action fast-moving.

Individual integrity has him grappling with the idea of personal choice and persuading himself that he should avoid political alliance. When the next crisis occurs, Nik chooses “for this moment; that is enough”. His aloneness lessens when he finds another friend in Lanya, who shares his ideas. Beautiful, feminine, funny and loyal (“and black like me”), this commanding dancer helps him and Fyffe. A ball of muscle, she is a Pathmaker – one who dances the dead to their death pyre. Lanya’s physical and emotional strength bring a necessary lightness to the bleak hunt for young Sol. She is formidable and fits well with other strong female characters.

The narrative, entirely focused through Nik, is supported by visual immediacy – the bridge looming over all who try to use it frames numerous disputes,  some fatal. In a spare flowing text dominated by dialogue, comments on accents clarify class and social distinctions, while the action continues. Nik and Fyffe are returning to Cityside after a death. A complete paragraph reports their arrival: “She went straight into her mother’s outstretched arms. And I went into the waiting arms of ISIS.” Class and colour dictate this. But Higgins trusts her readers.

By the end of the novel Nik sees neither side as honourable: “Both sides of the city were burning, and there was me standing [on the bridge] uselessly with a gun in my hands and dreams of revenge crowding my head.” All argue the justice of their war and the intransigence of the other side.

With subtlety and delicacy, Higgins has built in contemplation about integrity, honour, religion, the role of war and possibility of peace, while her characters evade riots, face down soldiers and trap an assassin. It is complex, but the limpid prose invites a wide range of readers.

“Story’s our way of understanding ourselves and explaining the bewildering world,” remarks a narrator in Calling the Gods.

Jack Lasenby’s novel uses two narrators. The first 14 chapters are told by Selene, a young woman who has been unjustly and cruelly banished from their (pre-historical?) village. She embarks on an epic voyage, rescuing other children and leading survivors to a safe bay 15 days sailing away. With the help of two of the boys in the group she first stops long enough on a razed village site to gather pots, nets, tools and seeds and make smoked and salted fish for the journey. She has remembered directions for the voyage from village stories. Weeks later they reach the chosen site and work to create liveable spaces and a Great House, fundamental to their beliefs.

From the beginning, Selene thinks of survival as creating a community, which we learn includes a belief in democracy, in a circle of life including the whale ceremony, and in the value of remembering how to do small physical tasks and forgetting deaths. Her story is woven of satisfaction in the completion of minute actions that often have a metaphorical meaning. Her spiritual role as the caller of the gods is the summation of signs looked for and rituals practised. The whales beach themselves “gasping their message of love as the sea withdraws”. The benefit of the sacrifice of these gods is the flesh and oil the people use for the whole year: “[T]he golden sand turns red as I drink the first blood, eat the first flesh of the gods’ sacrifice, their children sent to save us.”

The ritual for the dead involves telling their lives to the dead and burying them at sea: “Once the dead had been returned to the depths, it was the duty of the living to give them back their memory so they could live forever telling stories with the gods beneath the seas.”

The first instalment of the Old Man’s Story shows him and his friend on the beach observing the fleeting images and blurred voices of the young people living, playing, laughing. Are they dreams? Are they in the distant past or perhaps the dystopic future? Jim Rotherham finds it hard to think about; he feels it’s “an emotional rather than an intellectual block”. His kindly, wise, self-aware presence fills this time-mystery with an admiration of the young settlers, and elicits a similar response from his readers. The young settlers note indigenous trees clearly two or three hundred years old, volcanic rifts where deep dry gullies fill what the old men see now as a shallow inlet, and establish that is the future. And in the children’s story, finding a round ball of steel buried in a cliff they conclude, “It means there were once people here, and they had iron, too.”

What is the effect of the re-run from the old man’s point of view? His uncertainty empowers readers to make their own interpretation. Jim’s absorption in the time lapses leads him to share his reading of Eliot’s Four Quartets and other texts. They focus on time irregularities or dreams within a dream and invite other tentative versions. Just as the landscape has changed, so has the language. One intriguing trim to the story is the sprinkling of words not  in “today’s” English: par (paua), kar (kahawai) and mercy tree (pohutukawa), were three of my translations. The flowering pohutukawa presage the beaching of the whales.

Toward the end Lasenby starts note-taking, then confesses he is fictionalising. This admission from the author adds another layer of complexity and unreliability. Do we believe the reliable, kind, old man? Selene and the Old Man each report death and the annihilation of villages in a distanced voice. Selene deliberately disengages her memory, and the Old Man describes what looks like an overdone colour photograph.

In Calling the Gods, the richly layered construction empowers young readers to make their own interpretations. Towards the end, Jim senses impending tragedy; he thinks of Cassandra’s words: “[T]he house reeks of death and dripping blood.” Nevertheless, the story proceeds with a feeling of joy as Selene continues her inexorable journey to forming a community. The book is a wonderful mix of horror and peace, of humour and determination. It is an epic which should last for generations of new readers.


Jill Holt is an Auckland reviewer.                 


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Posted in Literature, Review, Young adults
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