by Alan Titchall
This novel is set mainly in 1962, at around the time the world held its breath as the Cuban Missile Crisis played itself out. As the author reminds us, being a country of relative insignificance half a world away from the place where a nuclear war might well have begun didn’t shelter us from fear of the possible consequences – not even in the remote dam-building settlement just north of Taupo where the action takes place.
Such towns and settlements have been an important feature of New Zealand’s social and economic history (Otago and West Coast mining communities and railway villages of the nineteenth century, for example, and the forestry and hydro settlements of the twentieth), and it is good to find a novel that describes so well the conditions of life in such places.
This particular community is inhabited by a variety of people from around the world – as well as New Zealanders (Māori and Pakeha), the novel features a German and a Russian, Australians, English and South Africans, a Welshman, and a mysterious Harley-riding American. Most of the main protagonists are haunted by incidents and memories of the War, which had concluded only some seventeen years earlier, and which had been one of the principle reasons people found themselves in this hydro town.
In fact, several of those protagonists had shared in frightful experiences during that war, unresolved incidents that come to a head in the course of the story. There is a great deal of coincidence involved in these people ending up together in this little community, but the author has us believing that it is not at all impossible that things could have worked out this way. The actual wartime incidents are revealed mainly in the narratives given by the people involved to the narrator of the story – an eleven-year-old boy called Roberto Smith. They are harrowing incidents, and reminders of the inhuman brutality of war.
There is an element of the other-worldly in the book, centred on the narrator’s attempts to nurse back to health a white fantail he has inadvertently injured (his deep concern at having done so makes for a cracking start to the story). If it dies, he is told, human tragedy might follow. In this regard, a forest-dwelling and possibly malevolent spirit from local Māori lore plays a role in elevating the tension at key times.
All of this amounts to absorbing, exciting reading; but even more rewarding is the deft way that the author draws his flesh and blood characters. Here are people, male and female, we can all relate to and (even in the least likely case) have real sympathy for. They are opinionated, occasionally funny, and they have their weaknesses; but they are always interesting.
The narrator being an eleven-year-old, this novel could possibly be characterised as ‘young adult’ – though certain descriptions and themes might be problematic for some. It is certainly a novel that adults would enjoy. Strong, familiar characters, surprising developments as well as vivid descriptions of ordinary life in a 1960s rural community, and action aplenty – it’s a winning formula.
Author: Alan Titchall
Publisher: Devon Media