Hormones and hedges David Hill

Into the River
Ted Dawe
Longacre, $20.00,
ISBN 9781775536048

Dappled Annie and the Tigrish
Mary McCallum (Annie Hayward illus)
Gecko Press, $20.00,
ISBN 9781877579912

Anyone present when Into the River won the Senior Fiction and Book of the Year categories at last year’s New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards couldn’t fail to be impressed – and moved – by the emotion of Ted Dawe’s speech: a speech which, it’s worth noting, he delivered in English and Te Reo. Similarly, anyone reading the deluge of diatribe that followed the triumph of this unsettling, unflinching YA novel couldn’t fail to be moved (to denture-grinding despair, this time) by the illogic and rant of so many objectors. Sample text: “Pornography is pornography, no matter what you call it.” Indeed, madam, and an idiot is an idiot, no matter what … etc, etc.

Forgive the florid tone. I think we sometimes display an Anglo-Saxon aversion to acknowledging that authors often write with passion, that they frequently build stories and characters that brim with feelings. Reviewers, especially, seem embarrassed at responding in similar subjective, emotional terms. Robert Graves’s “cool web of language binds us in”, which is hardly the way to discuss Dawe’s visceral, bubblingly hormonal novel. And before I say any more about Into the River, may I suggest what an intriguing and revealing contrast it makes with Mary McCallum’s first children’s book: the poles-apart worlds of grit and gonads on the one hand and enchantment and ethereality on the other, encapsulate the remarkable breadth of fiction for big and small kids being written in this country.

Dawe originally self-published Into the River, under the nifty imprint of The University of Mangakino Press. Now it’s been picked up by one of his previous mainstream publishers. So the print is clearer, the paper less glassy, the imprimatur more authoritative. This is a book with big, bold ambitions, one that jumps with physical immediacy. His gift for words takes young Te Arepa from a tiny country settlement to Auckland, and a scholarship as the only Maori at a prestigious – read “reactionary” – private college whose masters with their gowns, Latin tags and compound-complex sentences evoke the late 19th as much as the early 21st century. It’s not easy to picture a contemporary school where boys “sneak out for a midnight ramble”.

Life at Barwell’s Collegiate is nasty, brutish, and occasionally short. Favouritism and unrestrained bullying rule. Te Arepa quickly finds it easier to conceal his Maori-Spanish ancestry; for much of the narrative, he’ll be called Devon. Joltingly soon, he’s off on a corrugated road to sex, cannabis and vodka, renunciation, betrayal and school theatricals. He seems to lose or abandon almost everything, yet at the very end there’s a departure and a yell of liberation that become a prequel to the author’s earlier, also award-winning, Thunder Road.

It’s a percussively authentic rendering. The elbowing, anarchic humour is tone-perfect. Young males do jostle and abuse and jeer and confront like this. (They don’t always talk like this; I haven’t heard all that many kids announcing “I carry a huge weight and it slows me down”, but Dawe generally gets away with it.) They do make moral compromises and disastrous choices. They do throb for the sorts of imaginative – and disarmingly comical – sexual encounters that have outraged those who resent any book which reduces readers’ ignorance. Into the River is indeed a novel which empowers by informing. It’s not an issues book, however; narrative and characters always come first.   

It’s not only the rawness that distinguishes Dawe’s story. There’s also the building sense of alienation and solitariness that drives Devon towards his defiant future. There’s reverence as well: for spirits of the river and land; for natural life, mythology, legend, whakapapa; for the potency of narrative. Anyone who genuinely believes this is (second sample text) “just pandering to sex and filth” must have read the novel with their frontal lobes disconnected.

You can fault aspects of Into the River. The Rural Maori Boy Comes to Pakeha City motif is incipiently clichéd. The writing can be lush; characters declaim rather a lot, and the author explains rather a lot. But the urgency and integrity are undeniable. Colin McCahon wrote once about not wanting any refinement of style to moderate the intensity of his content, and you can see a good deal of that in Dawe’s memorable book.

Mary McCallum’s short novel for a significantly younger age-group is set an unspecified few decades ago. The father of Annie and four-year-old Robbie is a lighthouse keeper: how enviable. It’s a time when earthquakes, both rattlers and rollers, have been stirring things up, but the kids have got used to them, and live contentedly enough in a house with bulls on the other side of the hedge.

What a hedge it is. Annie has named every bush in it. She talks to it, and its component parts talk back. In it, there are family structures, varying voices, faces that shift and keep to themselves. It’s the hedge that tells Annie of the Tigrish. It does so only because she’s also dappled. The eponymous force that its voices evoke grows into something chthonic and heraldic, fearsome yet benevolent. McCallum keeps the specifics and corporeality neatly ambivalent. Nature turns inimical. Annie and Robbie face dislocation and danger. They mount a rescue mission with several balcony- and step-hangers before the good end happily.

Annie makes an engaging protagonist, brimming with imagination, convincingly censorious and quizzical, sturdy and stoic. Life becomes extraordinary for her, and by association for any child reading about her – which is one of the things kids’ fiction should do. There are some good, warm sibling relationships, even if our heroine does complain that her younger bro is “always sticky”.

Dappled Annie takes a few risks. The anthropomorphising could become sentimental. The frequent descriptions could slow the narrative. So could the clever dialogue. It happens a few times, but author and – presumably – editor(s) have kept things mostly purposeful. It’s a story with fine writing, in both senses. I do wonder if some sections, especially McCallum’s and Annie’s propensity for metaphors, will sail straight past a youthful audience. However, parents, who will profit from reading this with and to their kids, should appreciate the imagery. There’s clear and witty writing as well, with nippy conversations. And there’s close, well-chosen detail from domestic life: sugar sandwiches, knitting, crosswords. The hedge becomes a pageant, as well as being a painlessly instructive zoology / botany course. Nature and life aren’t all cosiness, but, once again, it’s a story which will leave its readers feeling elevated and empowered.

It’s become almost obligatory to commend Gecko’s design standards, and they’ve done another admirable job here. Pleasant paper and print, plus a sunny cover and effective placing of Annie Hayward’s cleverly naïve illustrations. There’s even a quartet of colour plates.

So we have two books about kids who have been or are lost. Books which, in their diametrically different ways, are subversive. Some critics apply that adjective in a pejorative sense to any YA or children’s books they see as threatening the conventional order; yet, as Alison Lurie has pointed out, Mary Poppins, The Cat in the Hat and The Wind in the Willows all mock or challenge conventions. So do the bolshie, renegade, testosterone-turbulent voices of Into the River and the revisions of reality in Dappled Annie. Both books share a more significant feature. They’re both, again in worlds-apart ways, authentic and absorbing. As the correspondent of paragraph two would surely agree, quality is quality, no matter what you call it.


David Hill’s YA novel, The Deadly Sky, will be published by Penguin in July.


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Posted in Children, Literature, Review, Young adults
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