by Sandra Arnold
More than anything else, this is a novel that explores deeply and movingly the question of what it means to belong. It begins with the most unsettling of tragedies, and it ends, perfectly, with a strong suggestion that, for the main protagonist, a deeply satisfying personal resolution will be reached. Or will it? At the end, and throughout the book, we are reminded that there will always be rogue chance to contend with.
For many readers, the main satisfaction will come from the author’s finely plotted main story and sub-stories, all involving well-drawn characters.
The plots cover a range of times and places and events from suspected witchcraft in a north-east England village in the seventeenth century, through post-war struggles in that same village in the nineteen-fifties, the trials and triumphs of new immigrants in New Zealand, experiences in a kibbutz in Israel in the sixties, and so on up to contemporary happenings in New Zealand and in that same northern English village.
The main narrative and the subplots are skilfully intermingled so that the sense of ultimate continuity is not lost. Indeed, the segueing of times gently hints at there being, tragically or joyfully depending on the particulars, a sameness in our experience as human beings whatever the time and place.
As the stories unfold, readers will find that it is not simply what happens that is important, but that the prejudices and assumptions behind the events are even more significant. Friendship and enmity, racism and compassion, honesty and pretentiousness, idealism and brutality, greed and poverty – these are all here, and in all the places and times that are visited. What is it that makes one feel at home? What is it that alienates? These questions are not answered didactically, but subtly, tellingly, by implication. In fact, no direct answers are attempted nor would they be welcomed, but the questions enter the mind regardless, as they are no doubt meant to.
It is, perhaps, this aspect of the book that appeals most. It is old-fashioned in the best sense of that term, a true novel that explores ways in which the world challenges, rewards and punishes us, and the ultimate importance of other people to our well-being and our survival as individuals. It is people who matter most, who alienate us or enable us to feel at home, to belong. ‘Place’, the physical presence of landscape or buildings or the weather or vegetation and wild-life, and even its history, can be extraordinarily evocative. It can be comforting or unsettling. It can evoke memories both pleasant and unpleasant; but it can and does change, sometimes rapidly, almost by the second. The more significant influences on our feelings of belonging are other people. He tāngata. Our fellow human beings. So has it always been, and, this book hauntingly persuades the reader, it is just as true today as it ever was.
This is a novel that will carry the reader along in an entertaining fashion, but it is also one to sink into, to think about and to savour.
Author: Sandra Arnold
Publisher: Mākaro Press
ISBN: 9 780995 119123
Available: in print from bookshops