Why Y? David Hill

Tina Shaw
Walker Books, $23.00,
ISBN 9781760651244

Invisibly Breathing
Eileen Merriman
Penguin Random House, $20.00,
ISBN 9780143772859

Flight of the Fantail
Steph Matuku
Huia, $30.00,
ISBN 9781775503521

An unspecified number of years back at a Going West Festival, I was on a panel talking about aspects of YA fiction. At question time, a firm voice from the floor asked why we needed the YA category, anyway? Wasn’t it maybe a bit of a fad, a publishers’ ploy to sell more titles? We’d got along for years without it, so why invent it now?

I mumbled something beginning with “Aw…” Then Bernard Beckett smiled his mandarin smile, and replied, “But, X, you spent years taking photos – ” (yes, X was a photographer, and a damn good one) “– without motor drives or digital cameras. Wouldn’t you say they’ve extended your options, allowed a new focus?” 

Nods and grins from audience, including a gracious one from X. I hate it when younger authors say things so much better than me.

Beckett was, and still is, right. The establishment of YA fiction and non-fiction has allowed writers to develop narratives, topics, characters, relationships, language, which had previously sprawled unsatisfactorily between children’s and adult books. It’s encouraged new forms of dialogue, social exploration, structure and tone. It’s offered fresh, relevant material. 

And it’s acknowledged the singular, stressful role that adolescence and its fringes represent today: a period of huge energy, but limited power; of protean identity; tumultuous internal and external pressures; a world which seems to change faster for them than for any other group.  Education, health, recreation, merchandising, justice and law all recognise that teenagers are a legitimate sub-group. The time was long overdue for literature to accept the appropriateness of a YA category.

It remains an edgy area. Write for any part of the 13-18-year-old spectrum and you brace yourself for moral, as well as literary, censure. It hardly ever comes from the target audience, though some of them have told me that my novel was “mostly okay, and they skipped the boring bits”. It’s adults who complain about perceived moral turpitude in YA books. Of course, they want to keep adolescents safe: to protect them from exploitation and corruption. Trouble is, protection is often a first step towards repression.

YA is an elusive genre to define. Do you categorise it by plot, people, prose, audience (the last ranges from able pre-teens to less confident older readers)? The borders and characteristics shift all the time; nothing wrong with that.

These three novels all nudge those borders in various ways.  

“The YA successor to The Book Thief, 1984 and Fahrenheit 451” blares the blurb for Tina Shaw’s new narrative of dysfunction and discord. I’d prefer to let this accomplished author’s book stand on its own.

It’s a familiar enough trope. A city in an unspecified time and place, with a marginally steam-punk technology of airships and grimy factories. A privileged ruling group of Travesters, and a slave class of Cerels who are treated like ferals and sub-humans. A blond, personable tyrant called The Director, with his secret police, The Black Marks. A gutsy teenage protagonist named Leho from the tenements. Add subversion, a bit of puppy romance, and shake. It works well.

We’re off to a galloping start, with Leho and his edgy mate Bit chucking incendiary devices at a Black Marks book-burning ceremony, before escaping through tunnels and sewers, back to Nanna and their ghetto. The Cerel underworld is instantly before us, and it’s a strong spine in the narrative, rich with stories, tradition, ritual and a sense of community, even as its people are sapped by hunger, tuberculosis, arbitrary arrest, work camps, exile, rape (Leho’s sister is a victim) and “extinction”.

You’ll think of Nazi Germany – there’s even a slogan, Work Makes You Free – Stalin’s Russia, Orwellian fiction. You’ll have grounds for thinking of settings even closer to home. But Shaw’s city of Ursa stands on its own booted or shabbily soled feet, and becomes an increasingly potent presence in the story.

Moody older brother Jorzy is part of a resistance movement which, in an unexpected but inventive development, sees Leho wangle himself an espionage role in a high-class vege garden. His mother, blinded in an earlier uprising, is a Cerel icon. When he saves the cherished pet dog of a Travester girl, it’s a sweet meet which brings him a sweetmeat, plus a new plot thread of hand-holding and hope. (You may occasionally wish to kick the dog.) But things are never going to be easy, as a rather perfunctory, but realistically painful, regime change looms.

Travesters, and especially their Black Marks, do sometimes edge towards being comic book baddies. But it’s a story in which adult characters are generally given significance and dignity, which doesn’t always happen in YA fiction. There’s an agreeable glitter of mischief between the generations, with jokes, winks, affectionate joshings. 

Leho carries the plot, and he’s a success: fierce, frightened, fallible. Shaw gets his language and feelings pretty-much spot on. He’s the pivot of her crafted, vivid novel. It’s one which stays mainly within the dystopian future conventions, but when they’re managed with this degree of skill, there’s nothing wrong with that, either. 

Eileen Merriman’s powerful third novel has an orthodox quality, too, though in her case it’s the orthodoxy of super-real, super-current fiction. Weird bright boy gets picked on at high school. Second weird bright boy arrives. They form a mutually protective alliance. Adults and authorities bumble and bash and betray. There’s a splintering marriage, a boozing, failed father, uncomprehending teachers. You sometimes hear the sound of boxes being ticked. 

But Merriman transforms the potentially clichéd into the immediate and specific. On her very first page (in her very first paragraph, actually), we find that Felix is a devotee of Catalan numbers, safe primes and Mersenne numbers. Look them up; I had to. He wears the headphones, has the dyed and spiked hair. He can’t understand small talk, and he obsessively counts the thousand steps between home and school. How distinctive can you get?   

He also has an imagination that slips the surly bonds of earth – read John Magee’s lovely poem if you don’t know it – and that imagination goes into hyperdrive when Bailey arrives in his physics class. Bailey sometimes has bruises or black eyes. He also has a stutter. Another echo of ticked boxes.

They won’t reduce the story’s appeal to its audience. Alternating between the two boys’ voices, Invisibly Breathing outlines a sympathy that deepens into friendship, then affection, then mutual attraction. It deftly renders the wonder and fear of Felix and Bailey as they joyously, fearfully, comprehend the trajectory they’re on.

Merriman’s previous two novels deserved their approving reviews and short-listings. This one heaves with incident: party, detention, substance misuse, blind and nearly dumb dates, confidings and confrontings. Catastrophes loom. There’s a climactic sequence with flight, clifftop arrest, medical emergency including beeping monitors, declarations of love, a very adroit ending. No reader is going to feel short-changed.

It’s a clever book. Ingenious chapter headings, smart sentences, inventive glides of plot and relationships. It’s very contemporary, veined with phones and txts and Twitter and Grand Auto Theft V.  There’s a stadium-sized cast of kids, and Merriman gets their blitheness, erratic fuses, invulnerability-cum-fragility spot-on. Hormones rage. Language smacks. You’ll want the very best for the two protagonists; you may also want to make them stand in the corner sometimes. I’ll grumble about some of the adult caricatures. A garlic-breathed, cheaply sarcastic teacher? Another like a doughy St Bernard? That’s a bit too dismissive and easy. 

Eileen Merriman is a consultant haemotologist. Her profession helps the plot. It also helps give me a chance to declare that her book is bloody good.

Taranaki author (yay!) Steph Matuku’s first YA novel also fair belts along. A Kotuku High School class trip; a bus driver’s seizure; a crash into a ravine; multiple fractures and fatalities – and all in the first four pages.   

There are just seven survivors. Joltingly soon, there are just six. Phones won’t work; food is pretty well non-existent, though Devin proves pretty good with an improvised eel spear. And (sometimes a bit hard to follow) a recent earthquake has shifted mineral plates, causing interference with signals. 

The live teenagers are a promisingly disparate lot: geeky or predatory or gauche, all authentically incomplete and raw. One has a heart issue; another has a homicide issue. Quick inserts reveal their back stories: solo or abusive parent; gender orientation dilemmas; school packs and school persecutions. Loyalties and relationships form, along with an effective set of  antagonisms. The plot glitters with conflicts and confrontations.

There’s certainly plenty for them to confront: giant wetas, eerie tremors in the earth, a rising river, hallucinations, reliance on a manicure set to stitch up a nasty gash, plus psychopathic tendencies inside their group and threatening forces outside it. Some of them grow in stature; others dwindle. There’s discord, damage, a sense of something inimical brooding nearby. What does a repeated flash of blue signify? And how about the spaceship protruding from a landslip? No spoiler there, I swear. 

Back in town, meanwhile, ambivalent big business is behaving … ambivalently. Others are starting a rescue effort, but not very effectively. Once again, adults tend to be ineffectual or nasty. Okay, it represents an adolescent viewpoint realistically enough, but it diminishes those characters.

Anyway, events hurtle onwards. Strange men appear, along with strange horses. The spaceship appears further (still no spoiler). There are multiple explosions and graphic shocks. Graphic, but not gratuitous; they’re nearly always integrated into the plot. The good – and Matuku ensures her kids are a textured mixture of selfless and selfish – don’t all end happily, which acknowledges the resilience of YA readers. 

Matuku is a hard-working writer, and it shows sometimes. Her style intermittently edges towards the purple; a fair few adjectives and adverbs need lopping. But her evocation of Lord of the Flies darknesses within human hearts, her balancing of horrors and subversive humour, adolescent surfaces and mythical deeps, plus the ways her young protagonists combine bitchiness with bravery, are just some of the successes in this handsome Huia publication.

So here are three local practitioners with books that have already met with approving nods from readers and the odd admiring sigh of envy from other writers. Be nice to feel that each represents another small step for humankind, towards building up a genre that no longer needs to justify its existence. 

David Hill’s Dinosaur Hunter: The Joan Wiffen Story, illustrated by Phoebe Morris, will be published by Penguin Random House in August.

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Posted in Literature, Review, Young adults
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