Sex-free romance and YA cred, Paula Morris

Whiti Hereaka
Huia, $25.00,
ISBN 9781775501336

When We Wake
Karen Healey
Allen & Unwin, $22.00,
ISBN 9781742378084

Natalie King
Penguin, $20.00,
ISBN 9780143570790

Bugs, the eponymous protagonist of Whiti Hereaka’s first YA novel, is unimpressed with much of what her generation is expected to read. Her English teacher insists they discuss that infamous “human/werewolf/vampire love triangle … because the characters are our age, they’re going through what we’re going through, we can relate. Like half of us could relate to a white chick with a thing for dogs and dead dudes.”

She prefers dystopian fiction, like Brave New World and 1984, but is cynical about more recent offerings. “What I’ve figured out about dystopias is this,” she advises:

if you wake up and find yourself in the middle of one, the first thing you need to do is figure out if it was written for kids or adults. If it’s for kids, then an overlooked ordinary person, probably you, will be able to rise and change the world. If it’s for adults … then we’re all fucked.

Bugs prefers the bleaker view, because she lives in a place where changing the world seems impossible. Her “scenic” town on Lake Taupo is a dead end, where the only jobs are in “hospo” and where Māori kids at school are “hit over the head with statistics about how most of us would fail.” She lives in a small house maintained by a dogged, shift-working single mother, desperate for Bugs to achieve more. Her best friend, Jez, has been decreed a no-hoper and is subject to the whims and violence of his mother’s succession of boyfriends. The new kid in town, rich white kid Charmaine, is spoiled and ignored by her parents, left to get drunk and run wild. Bugs yearns for more – for herself and for Jez – but everything seems against them.

There’s much to admire in this book, particularly its thoughtful and vivid evocation of Bugs’s home, family and school, and its clear-eyed presentation of the huge socio-economic challenges for Māori and other teens in New Zealand, especially those living in small towns and rural areas with few opportunities, and especially those marked from childhood by authority figures as born to fail. And it’s refreshing, in our current groove of fantasy overload, to read a contemporary realist novel which explores the myriad social and emotional pressures on young people.

I hope that a few perplexing decisions around the book don’t deter teen readers – or their teachers, librarians or parents. The cover is contemporary and subtle, but the back cover copy makes the book seem childish, something for early adolescents rather than anyone close to Bugs’s age. (It’s also annoyingly coy about Bugs’s gender, as are the opening pages of the novel.)

Most of the novel seems as though it’s aimed square at high-school-age readers, for whom choosing (and being blocked from) options at school, worrying about the future, enduring and tormenting teachers, dealing with parental pressure (or neglect), and obsessing over how to afford phones and driving lessons are central realities. So the decision to have Bugs use the “c” word more than once, in passing, is a poor one. The book would not seem less realistic, or Bugs’s emotion less authentic, without it. There’s a reason it’s not a word you see often in YA, or even in adult realist fiction, especially from a sympathetic protagonist.

It’s a cheap and misguided inclusion, and an error of judgment by author and editor – a sprinkle of faux-shock to create the illusion of a novel that’s gritty and provocative. In fact, it could be a good deal grittier in its depictions of drug-taking and violence, and the novel has almost nothing to say about hook-ups or periods, things that loom large in the hormone-charged obstacle course of female adolescence. Bugs often reads as much younger and more naïve than 16 and, sometimes, in the classroom scenes, as much older and more worldly. And while Bugs and her story aren’t sentimental, authorial didacticism lurks, especially towards the end of the novel, when Bugs has to do penance by spending her holiday cleaning rooms in the hotel where her mother works. The “lesson” feels very pointed, and the reader is never in doubt that Bugs will do the right rather than the rash thing at the end of the novel.

An authorial agenda is also evident in Karen Healey’s When We Wake, the first in a new speculative series set in a future Australia. If Hereaka’s “issue” is the chronic under-achieving of – and low expectations for – Māori youth at low-decile schools, then Healey’s is the political possibilities of teens. Rather than apathetic or self-absorbed, Healey’s teens are feisty activists, protesting the dire effects of climate change – pandemics, rivers drying up, oceans and temperatures rising – and Australia’s rabid anti-immigrant policies.

The novel begins in 2027, when spunky 16 year-old Tegan is falling in love and obsessing over olden-days band The Beatles. Killed by accident at a protest rally, she wakes up in 2127, the first person ever to be cryonically frozen and revived. A PR pawn of government agencies and a target for religious cult the Inheritors of the Earth, Tegan makes new friends and many more enemies in her quest to discover why, exactly, she’s been given a second chance at life. Without giving too much away: it’s a big, sinister plot called the “Ark Project” involving slavery and outer space.

It’s a credit to Healey’s skill as a writer that she can make two future eras feel authentic and plausible, and that Tegan is such a compelling voice and flawed, three-dimensional, active protagonist. Occasionally it feels a little preachy about tolerance: Tegan’s new best friend Bethari is a Muslim and a lesbian; both her new and old loves are Somali; and technology is summoned a little too often and conveniently, in a sort of futuristic CSI-show way, to get our heroine out of jams. But it’s a pacey and well-written novel, with strong enough characters and premise to make readers eager for the second instalment.

Awakening, by Natalie King, is a romance with a supernatural twist, set in a South Island lakeside community that seems as small as Hereaka’s Taupo hamlet, but is much more affluent and American – there’s a school cafeteria and a school bus – not to mention cinematically snowy.

Zelie is an English girl guilt-ridden over the tragic sudden death of her mother, dragged to New Zealand by her weird, withdrawn father, a doctor, and trying to make a stable home for her vulnerable little brother. When Kate, a strange, sick girl with creepy uncles, manipulates her into plucking an old locket out of the lake, Zelie finds herself bound, physically and mentally, to a French teen named Tamas. A spell trapped him within the locket a hundred years ago, and now he can see everything Zelie sees, hear everything she says, and feel her thoughts, dreams and emotions. Complications (historical, supernatural, emotional) ensue, involving “the Witching” and the “Guardians”.

Although we’re told that Zelie has recently arrived from England – hence her outsider status at school – she may as well be in exile from Auckland. The idiom within her own point of view is entirely local: she thinks of the kettle as a jug, of the kitchen counter as a bench, of sweets as lollies. Her foreignness is just a plot point, necessary to make the showdown ending work, when everything is explained – mostly by the villain, in the manner of a James Bond film. The century-old perspective of Tamas is similarly perfunctory, as are all the school scenes and the school dance scene; the author can’t be bothered with these at all. The plot mechanics creak (much is made of Tamas forced to watch Zelie bathe, but there’s no mention of her going to the toilet!) and the fantasy aspects of the story are a muddle of different mythologies and confusing timelines and personae.

King’s main line of business is as a romance writer, and here there’s plenty of soulful longing. When Zelie looks into Tamas’s “storm-tossed eyes … [she] felt herself hurtling towards a cliff over which she could not see.” When Tamas kisses her, he “groaned deep in his throat” and soon “she was enveloped in his shining beauty … Living ecstasy.” Later, when they part, her “heart tore … desperate to be in the heart of the rainbow again.”

And so on. Awakening will find willing readers longing for sex-free romance given YA cred with a vague wave of the supernatural wand. Bugs would disapprove.


Paula Morris (Ngāti Wai) is Fiction Writer-in-Residence at the University of Sheffield in England. Her most recent YA novel was Unbroken (Scholastic/Point). In 2013 she published her first childrens book, Hene and the Burning Harbour (Penguin NZ).


Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,
Posted in Fiction, Literature, Review, Young adults
Search the archive
Search by category