Wonderful New Zealand everydayness, Caitlin Walker

The Year of Falling
Janis Freegard
Mākaro Press, $35.00
ISBN 9780994106575

Selina’s life seems perfect. She’s got the job of her dreams, she and her boyfriend have been together for a record 18 months, and she’s got her health under control. But, then, a creepy doll shows up on her doorstep. And then she dumps her boyfriend for the intoxicating celebrity chef Randall Marshall – who also happens to be engaged to her boss. So begins her year of falling. The Year of Falling, poet and short story writer Janis Freegard’s first novel, is the story of how Selina falls and how forgiveness helps her get back up again.

The novel, although you wouldn’t think it from the first few chapters, is a very heart-warming read, largely due to the thread of forgiveness running through the whole book. It is seen a lot in Quilla’s storyline, and a little bit in Ragnar’s and Smith’s, but, personally, I thought that the most interesting case of forgiveness was Selina. Selina isn’t secure in herself, largely due to negative past experiences, and her falling just cracks her even more. She relies on Randall for self-confirmation, saying that he makes her feel “desirable” again, and her friend Bailey for partying, and turns away from the friends and family that could glue her together. As a result, she goes into a downwards spiral. It isn’t until her sister Smith teaches her the importance of self-forgiveness and self-love that she starts to fix herself. Smith tells her this:

“There’s something I realised a long time ago … I’m going to be stuck with being me for a very long time.” She’s so kind and so patient. Sometimes I want to slap her. “You’ve got to make friends with yourself.”

The characters also play a huge role in making the book so touching. There are three narrators: Selina, her sister Smith, and her landlord Quilla, each with their own voice and storyline. Smith and Quilla captured me from the start, as did Ragnar, Katie, and Daisy. Although I found Selina irritating for a lot of the novel, by the end I realised that that was the point. She sees herself as annoying and boring, and so she is. When she learns to love and forgive herself, giving herself a chance, she becomes so much more. That was a clever move on Freegard’s part that really accentuated the idea of forgiveness. By the end, I was rooting for all the characters (#teamrata). I smiled my whole way through the last chapter, and I even got a little bit teared up, because I was just so happy for them all.

But, of course, it wasn’t just the characters and the message that made The Year of Falling so good. The language is simply beautiful – it’s clear Freegard’s a poet. But the language isn’t beautiful because of long, flowing descriptions of bubbling rivers and green dells. Its starkness and everydayness is what makes it so poignant:

I pass the solid wooden seat that looks out to sea, with “Love Never Fails” etched into its russet-coloured back. I wish it were true. The waves are gentle. The tide’s out. I’ll go along to the fossil forest at the far end. A car drives past me onto the beach. I walk past the row of painted boatsheds with the sun in my eyes. Some combination of the tint in the lenses of my sunglasses and the brightness of the winter sun combine to deliver an optical illusion where every stone and every footprint on the beach look like they’re soaked with blood.

The everydayness of most of the book is why, when crazy things happen (if you’ve read it – I’m talking about the tree scene), I just accepted them and kept reading. It wasn’t until I took a break that I suddenly realised how bizarre what I had just read really was. It takes serious talent to make the reader completely and utterly believe the crazy things your characters do.

Finally, for me, the icing on the cake was just how New Zealand The Year of Falling was. The Brooklyn windmill and the Riff Raff statue both featured; Quilla only listened to National Radio; and the girls next door did Kapa Haka. (Side note: kudos to Freegard on the diversity of the characters.) All the references made me smile, but I have to say, my favourite line in the book was: “ ‘We’ll still see each other at weekends’, he said. ‘I’ll fly down every other week,’ he said. ‘Come up and stay,’ he said. ‘I’m sensing a Tui ad,’ says Smith.”

Sure, I’ll be the first to admit that this book isn’t perfect. There are a lot of different storylines going on, meaning that some of them weren’t developed enough. This especially applied to the doll thread, which was built up a lot at the start and then dropped halfway through, to be suddenly resolved almost as an afterthought in the epilogue. It was a bit of a let-down, especially after such a beautiful and resolved last chapter. I also would have loved to have heard more from Quilla’s point of view: her friend Daisy was one of my favourite characters, but often seemed to just be a narrative device to tell Quilla’s backstory. But, all in all, Freegard’s The Year of Falling is a wonderful first novel, and I can’t wait to see what comes next.

Caitlin Walker is 16 years old, from Wellington. For more reviews from young readers, go to www.hookedonbooks.org.nz.

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Posted in Literature, Review, Young adults
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