The Deadly Sky
Puffin, $20.00, ISBN 9780143308157
The Red Suitcase
Mākaro Press, $25.00, ISBN 9780994106902
Walker, $22.00, ISBN 9781922179623
David Hill’s The Deadly Sky is set in 1974, when the nuclear proliferation of the Cold War was at the forefront of political debate, and France was, quite literally, dropping bombs in the South Pacific. Modern global terror has a different focus (the Big Red Button seems old-fashioned from today’s perspective), but the ethical quandaries at the heart of the arms race – whether militarisation works to promote security or to endanger it; whether national and global security is worth its economic, ecological and individual cost – remain pertinent.
That the protagonist, Darryl Davis, will spend the narrative grappling with these questions is clear from the first pages: the book opens on Darryl watching a documentary about the aftermath of the A-Bombs in WWII. Hill doesn’t stint on the horrific details of nuclear fallout: “A face was in front of Darryl … The hair had all gone, leaving a black crisp on the skull. Cheeks, forehead, nose, neck were blistered raw flesh. The eyes were slits; the mouth hung open.” When the carnage (and the protest it engenders) is safely at the other end of the television and on the other side of the world, Darryl can react with a stereotypically teenaged mixture of horrified fascination and self-absorbed indifference (he yawns and wishes idly for a colour TV). Over the course of the story, as Darryl follows his mother on a trip to French Polynesia, nuclear fallout – political, social, environmental and physical – is abruptly brought home to him and made increasingly real and personal. He is confronted with the effects of nuclear testing on the lives and homes of people he cares for; at the last, he is confronted with the nuclear bomb as a present physical threat.
The narrative is closely focussed through Darryl, so it is not surprising that he is by far the most developed character in the story. This backfires somewhat when it comes to Darryl’s absent father – Darryl understands very little of his parents’ marriage, and the entire subplot seems consequently rather underdeveloped and oddly disconnected from the main action, for all that its themes of loss and uncomfortable change cross over. Despite this, Darryl’s story is moving and engaging, the issues raised emotionally and intellectually complex. Hill includes some lovely details that differentiate the analogue world of the 1970s from the digital world of today – Darryl is unable to take a picture of his airline meal because “developing photos is expensive, remember”. This is a forgotten concern in the age of Instagram. But Darryl himself, 14 and awkward, both gratified and excruciatingly embarrassed by social contact – demonstrates that some things have remained constant over 40 years, and puberty is one of them. Darryl’s slow emergence from his self-absorption and connection to the wider world – his growing understanding of his position in relation to it – also makes his experience universal and relatable.
Jill Harris’s The Red Suitcase is, like The Deadly Sky, concerned with bombs and their aftermath; with living at the whim of larger, terrifying forces; with the wartime dilemma of “good people who [do] terrible things”. Ruth, “an ordinary girl of fourteen who just wanted to have friends”, is forced to return to New Zealand with her father after an attack by a suicide-bomber makes their lives as white Christians in Indonesia untenable. Having left part of her family and her best friend behind in Indonesia, Ruth is isolated in Auckland when she inexplicably finds herself slipping through time to share the experience of an airman during the WWII bombardment of Germany. Ruth is more than a little unsettled by her ghostly visits to the past: she is aboard a plane that is shot out of the sky; she floats adrift on a dinghy on open sea; movingly, she sits in silence with a group of women who have just received an awful telegram while the tea cools in the cups and the biscuits sit untouched on the plates. But her experiences in the past and her efforts to makes sense of them serve to connect Ruth’s past and present (“it’s almost as if the bomb followed you”), to help her process her grief, and to deepen her relationship with her New Zealand friends and family. As in The Deadly Sky, large, complicated questions of violence and conflict, and what violence costs, are brought home to Ruth on a variety of levels and made real and vital in their effects on her and those she cares for.
This is, perhaps above all else, a wonderfully careful book. In the first place, it shows a deep and painstaking commitment to research – it is beautifully faithful in its representation of 1940s speech and slang, air force uniforms, and the details of WWII aircraft, among other things – and this is reflected in Ruth’s own research into the war and into the airman she knows as Jonah. Harris is less convincing when she writes personal conflict: the argument between Ruth and her friend Thomas is forced, and the fight at the end of the book sits oddly with the rest of the narrative, apart perhaps from its obvious status, along with the bomb and the war, as a form of violent upheaval. Harris seems deliberately to avoid conflict in painful situations; her characters (apart from Micky the bad egg) refuse to blame unfairly, react with anger or spite, or withhold forgiveness in the face of hurt. But this is hardly a complaint: the book is also careful in its deliberate, and deliberately kind and nuanced, treatment of delicate subject matter. It is “sensible, yes, and kind and straight”, much like Ruth’s Nan inside the story: plain-spoken, engrossing and moving.
Rachael Craw’s Spark is more firmly aimed at YA readers (Evie, the protagonist, is 17, and the book is essentially a paranormal romance with a sci-fi veneer), and it is very different from the other books here. However, like them, Spark is concerned with the intrusion of violence into a life, with a protagonist grappling with forces beyond her control. The larger forces in question here are a shady bio-engineering organisation called the Affinity Project, and Evie’s own modified DNA. I’ll try to make this short and clear: the Affinity Project tampered with human DNA in the hopes of creating super-soldiers for private security. The experiment failed, but created three classes of genetically-modified human: Strays, genetically driven to kill; Shields, genetically driven to protect; and Sparks, who, while not having enhanced abilities themselves, trigger the DNA that produces Shields and Strays and then become the focus of both the protective and the aggressive instinct. Evie is a Shield who is sparked by her best friend, Kitty. The gene essentially makes Evie superhuman: she has enhanced senses, reflexes and healing, and psychic abilities that are given pseudo-scientific acronyms but boil down to mind-reading and danger-sensing. She also becomes really, really, ridiculously good-looking. Evie then spends the narrative being defined in relation to a special DNA-mandated form of destiny.
At points, the story is uneven: world-building information (especially terminology and acronyms) are delivered in huge, slightly indigestible chunks at the beginning of the book and might have been integrated better. There are times when the narrative says one thing and shows another: Evie’s ostensible fixation on Kitty, for example, jostles uncomfortably with her romance with Kitty’s brother Jacob (a relationship also governed, somewhat uncomfortably, by genetic imperative). Kitty is often all-too-easily sidelined in a way that threatens to undermine the concept of fixation. For the most part, however, Spark is a pretty straightforward representation of its genre: fans of sci-fi romance will find it engaging and satisfying, while casual readers might find it clichéd, probably for the exactly the same reasons. The plot is one of traditional wish-fulfilment; Evie is a traditional idealised-yet-relatable YA heroine: both should be judged on those terms. It should be said that cliché in this context is no bad thing: one of the particular joys of genre fiction (of all types) is that it delivers what readers want and expect, ideally leavened with a twist or two. Being displaced and disaffected; being destined (romantically and otherwise) and chafing against destiny; being noticed for being gifted or beautiful, indeed, being noticed at all – these are deliberate features of YA wish-fulfilment fantasy of this type, and Craw delivers all of them in spades, along with a genuinely surprising twist at the end.
Angelina Sbroma is working on a PhD on children’s literature at Victoria University of Wellington.