Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay: the book and recent TV adaptation

I was inspired to read Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay when the BBC scheduled a new series adaptation back in June (produced by Fremantle Media and Foxtel). I have a thing about needing to read the book before I can watch a screen adaptation and the previews just looked so good!

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Picnic at Hanging Rock is often described as a modern Australian classic. Written in the sixties, the book is actually set at the turn of the 20th century and is the story of a group of teenage girls attending an Australian boarding school, who go missing along with a school mistress during a picnic at the ancient Hanging Rock and the impact this vanishing has on those at the school and in the local community.

I will be honest and say that it was a slow starter for me, it took me a while to get into the writing style and connect with both the plot and the characters. But once I was in I was in! It is only a slim novel yet there was so much packed into those pages. In many ways, I felt it needed to be longer to explore the themes and characters in more satisfying depth; I’m all for making the reader do some work but there was so much more potential there!

I loved:

The themes of mysticism and nature: The Hanging Rock felt like a character in itself, linked to the ancient traditions of its Indigenous People and not understood by a white society trying to enforce its customs on the land. Its energy is mysterious, foreboding, timeless and tantalisingly just out of reach. I can see why so many people are frustrated with this book as there isn’t a clear, logical narrative and it is really difficult to pinpoint the nature of the rock’s role in events. One interpretation is that the girls use the picnic to escape from their lives, that there is a silent pact that the reader is not privy to. I really like the idea of the girls’ search for freedom being intertwined with the rock’s energy and being a portal for a life beyond the restrictions forced upon them as young women. Whether they do in fact commit group suicide, find a secret path through the rocks and build new lives elsewhere or, more fantastically, are swallowed by this energy portal, their lives are changed forever, and this has a profound ripple effect on all those connected with it as well. I was very much left with the impression that nature cannot be tamed, it holds the true power in the narrative.

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The Head Mistress Mrs Appleyard: again, the character details were few and far between but there was just enough there to make me wonder what darkness lay beneath her rigid, harsh facade. It is deliciously dark how she represses herself, only escaping by means of a secret stash of alcohol in her desk drawer, and all the time constructing a cage for herself and the girls in her care. I got the impression that there was torment in her past back in England and felt incredibly sad that having managed to  escape the country, she then becomes a repressor herself. The inevitable unravelling of Mrs Appleyard was so interesting, so intriguing and I think there is a whole other book waiting to be written about her.

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The delicious web of secrets that everyone carries below the surface whilst trying to be part of a “civilised” society: I’m not going to go into detail here but let’s just say that the enticing contrast within Victorian society between what was being presented on the surface and what was in fact going on below the surface is present in abundance.

The theme of time: I’ve read that Lindsay was obsessed by time, believing it was a destructive force destroying creativity, restricting freedom and expression. The clocks stop when they get to Hanging Rock. I loved the symbolism of this. I also got the slightest hint of time travel every now and again, adding a further layer to the mystery of the girls’ disappearance.

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The girls: Irma with an intense love of all things beautiful and almost narcissistic in nature; Marion with her deep thirst for knowledge and, above all, strong willed, sparky, provocative Miranda.

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What I thought about the adaptation…

I absolutely loved it! It is very much made for a modern audience and is interpreted accordingly yet this isn’t a negative for me- it brings a fresh perspective and creates a new audience.

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The production is stunning. The sumptuousness and piousness of Victorian Society is so well captured, the flashbacks and inner thought sequences totally captured my imagination. I adored the steam punk/Gothic element to Mrs Appleyard and her darkness is deliciously tangible. I thought the girl’s back stories were really well developed using the book as a starting point; they became so much more rounded than on paper – Miranda is a passionate feminist in the making, Marion explores her attraction to her teacher Ms. McCraw, and is given an Indigenous heritage background; Irma’s sensuality crackles with electricity. The purists among Lindsay’s readers were generally not impressed (according to the reviews that I read)  but as far as my own experience is concerned, it captured the essence of the book brilliantly and, after all, isn’t a book interpreted differently by each reader anyway?

 

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Night of the Party by Tracey Mathias; dystopian fiction or a very possible future?

Night of the Party by Tracey Mathias is set in a future Britain where Brexit has indeed happened; the country is governed by The Party, a deeply conservative, right wing, authoritarian government. The Party’s prime focus is on the creation and implementation of the Immigration and Residency Act: anyone not born in the UK, who has been resident for fewer than twenty-five years, does not have an automatic right to remain. There is a points assessment system as well as forced deportation and it is law to report anyone you believe not to be BB (British Born). As you may gather, this book packs quite a punch and takes its YA target audience incredibly seriously. It is equally a wonderfully written love story between two teenagers, Ash and Zara, who are forced to navigate their lives together within this extreme, political context.1413431402

The main reason I picked up Night of the Party is the political element, which is actually so frighteningly close to the present reality that it feels more real than futuristic. I am an immigrant and all the fears I have for my future, should a hard Brexit go ahead, are all explored in this story. Sometimes it even got to the point where I had to stop reading for a little while as the storyline felt so very immediate, so very personal. Powerful stuff indeed.

flag peopleThe concept of nationalism and how this is used by politicians to manipulate thinking is brilliantly interwoven throughout the book. There are so many echoes of fascist governments of the past as well as the prevailing idea present today that all was better in the “good old days of Britain”. World War 2 films are produced en masse and are highly popular, the National Anthem is played at the end of each film. Churchill is once again an icon and his image displayed in cafes and restaurants. A strong emphasis is placed on all things traditional and the word itself crops up over and over again – how subtle the manipulation of language can be and how effective when it is part of everyday life! Pubs have signs that say that non-British Born are not welcome; the segregation is blatant and ordinary practice. There is talk of “duty” to report “Illegals”. There are also Neighbourhood Watch volunteers patrolling the streets and the presence of The Agency, which runs surveillance- everyone is watching or being watched. And all of this is wrapped up as a “necessary defence of national resources, security and culture” by the prime minister. Frightening.

flag peopleWithin this context, I loved the exploration of what “home” means as part of nationalism and the persecution of immigrants. Zara has lived in the UK for most of her life, for her, Romania can never be home even though she was born there. She wants to study English Literature at university; everything she knows and loves is here. Her roots are here. Home is about so much more than where you are born.

flag peopleI also think Mathias’ writing is exceptional in the way she threads current political viewpoints clearly throughout the story in a very genuine, accessible way, inviting readers to challenge their own perceptions.  An example of this is a very well written conservation that takes place between two of Ash’s friends, each on the opposite side of the political divide; whilst The Party supporter Lewis talks about the UK being a small island with limited space and resources and how non-BB are placing too much demand on the NHS, on housing etc, Chris talks of the deportation being an infringement of basic human rights.

flag peopleIn connection with this, one of the most powerful sections of the book focus on the scenes in a detention centre, where non-BBs are awaiting deportation. I don’t want to give the plot away but do want to mention how perceptively and sensitively written these scenes are. Dignity is stripped away, basic needs are not met, human rights are abused and for all intents and purposes it is a prison for those that have not committed a crime other than not being born in the UK. However, within this dark, soulless world there are kind individuals, other detainees who provide hope and solidarity; Mathias shows how things can happen for the good when women unite – this highlights a defying, resilient humanity, which can prevail regardless of the odds and that hope is so very important for our future.

flag peopleIt is of course much more than a political comment, at the heart there is an intense, genuine and beautifully written love story. Ash has experienced a terrible loss in his recent past and then he meets Zara. Though the two have not met before, their history is interlinked. Ash is BB, Zara is Romanian. I realise this sounds very vague, but it is hard to say more without giving away the mystery that unravels throughout the book! The story is told by both Ash and Zara’s perspectives in alternating chapters – this works brilliantly because we not only get to see into the hearts and minds of both characters – and I was emotionally engaged with both characters as if I personally knew them, but we also see in great detail how different their experiences of living in the UK are and how different their futures look. Ash and Zara’s belief in each other, the depth and sheer resilience of their relationship was so very lovely and also reminded me what teenagers are indeed capable of even though they are often portrayed otherwise.

flag peopleAsh and Zara are forced to deal with fundamental life questions as part of their relationship, questions that everyone needs to ask themselves in the world we live in. For instance, Ash’s dad tells him it is best to avoid friends who aren’t BB as soon as the law takes affect and his mum adds, “You don’t want to have to choose between reporting someone or breaking the law.” What would you do if it came to the crunch – do what you know to be right and follow your heart or adhere to the rules? And it is this humanity that absolutely shines through in the book, the message that each life matters because each one of us is a human being with emotions, needs and dreams.

This book needs to be read. It needs to be shouted about from the rooftops. It needs to be promoted in schools. It needs to be read by those adults in our world who are either unaware by choice or circumstance of our current political situation.

Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves by Rachel Malik

I came across Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves by Rachel Malik when the Walter Scott Prize longlist for 2018 was announced (it made the shortlist too). Without even opening the book, I knew it would be just my cup of tea – it has so many elements that I love: a World War II backdrop and the British countryside; intriguing female lead characters; a character driven story line as well as an exploration of friendship and hidden lives.

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The story is of Rene Hargreaves, who, one day in 1940, walks out on her husband and children to join the Land Army and is billeted to the remote Starlight Farm where she then meets its owner, Elsie Boston. The two are strangers from totally different worlds and weary of one another but they soon come to depend on and care for each other immensely. They are forced to leave Starlight and become itinerant farm workers, travelling the country together, always sticking to isolated farms where questions won’t be asked. After the war, they then settle in a Cornish cottage where their life together is shaken to its foundations when someone from Rene’s past intrudes. Everything is threatened, and the resulting choices and actions have far reaching consequences.

My thoughts…

The wonderfully crafted characters:

Elsie. Oh, how I identified with this socially awkward soul with an exceptional ability to care for animals and plants, who likes nothing better than being settled in a place she knows and loves with her radio to keep her company and routines to guide her days. Though she is the gentler of the two characters, there is a core strength within in her, a fierce determination to live her own life and not be constrained by others.

Rene. Based on Malik’s research of her own grandmother’s past, Rene challenges society head on and is a character of many layers (there is a wonderful article on Malik’s discoveries on the Penguin website). She breaches gender rules; walks away from being a wife and mother even though the consequences for her family and for herself are heart-breaking. But she knows herself well enough to know how her life needs to evolve and she makes it happen. Even in the hardest times. However, whilst Elsie craves isolation, Rene also enjoys the company of other people and being a part of the outside world and is often torn between these two worlds – I loved this contrast.text dividers-12 2The development of the relationship between Rene and Elsie is intricately and incredibly beautifully written in all its depth, complexity and human connection. I loved that their relationship as a same sex couple was not once explicitly mentioned yet all the nuances and small details spoke volumes. I especially enjoyed the way the characters spoke to each other, which gave a real sense of what they were like as people at the same time: Elsie’s more formal, slightly awkward constructions with such an underlying need for belonging; Rene’s more extrovert, direct and warmer ways, a voice that protects and nurtures on its own terms. This is not to say that life is perfect, unspoken words and underlying tensions run alongside; it is a hard existence for them and their contrasting personalities cause some heart-wrenching moments of distance between them too.text dividers-12 2I absolutely loved all the tiny details of home life for Elsie and Rene: playing patience, reading to each other, listening to the radio of an evening. I was transported back in time, picturing everything so clearly. The way Malik describes how every new dwelling is made into a home, despite an immense lack of financial resources, is also beautiful in its detail: every piece of furniture is hard won, every dark corner made the best of, hours and hours of hard graft to turn dismal surroundings into somewhere that they can belong.text dividers-12 2The descriptions of the landscape and how the two women are bonded with the land are gorgeous; starting at Elsie’s Starlight Farm then moving on to the places they travel as itinerant workers during the war and beyond. There is a wonderful description of them riding their bikes on a whim one evening to celebrate Rene’s birthday, their destination being an ancient white horse carved into the hillside, the outline of which has been covered with turf to prevent German planes using it for orientation purposes. Tipsy on a found half bottle of brandy and the exhilaration of spending time with each other, they uncover the horse just long enough for Rene to see it as a whole.text dividers-12 2There is a darker side to the story, which involves a trial in the last section of the book, when a visitor from Rene’s past intrudes and turns the women’s secluded life into a living nightmare. It is based on the newspaper article Malik found during her research. Elsie and Rene’s life, always so carefully kept out of the spotlight, is now under public scrutiny and, without giving more away, the way it was written really broke my heart. A brilliant contrast.text dividers-12 2In a Walter Scott Prize interview, Malik considers what history means to us today and talks of how perceptions of history are ever evolving as different aspects become important to us as a society. It is this kind of history that I love; the stories that haven’t yet been told, an emerging focus on women’s history and female perspectives, social history that allows you to have a real sense of connection with the past. Malik’s book does all this and much much more.

Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves is one of the most beautiful, gentle, uplifting yet also tragic books I’ve read in quite some time. An amazing character piece of two women who refuse to fit neatly into the pigeonholes society has for them.

Honor Girl by Maggie Thrash

Honor Girl by Maggie Thrash was a Pride Month read for me and another adventure into the land of graphic novels. Slowly but surely, I feel I am finding a connection with this genre as I look beyond the words to the artwork and what an amazing skill it to be able to tell your story in words AND images.

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This is Maggie Thrash’s debut, a graphic memoir of her teenage years away at an American summer camp where she experiences love for the first time in the shape of Erin, one of the camp’s counselors.  To be given the Honor Girl award of the title, the chosen girl must represent the traditional, very conservative, “female ideals” that the camp fosters. So, the scene is set for the exploration of values, identity, same sex relationships and what being a girl means in this summer camp context of the early 2000s.

My thoughts…

Starting on a light note, the period details really appealed to me as I remember that particular time very well, so Maggie’s love of the Backstreet Boys felt very nostalgic indeed and the scene where the girls are taking it in turns to read the latest Harry Potter book brought back fond memories too. This is not to say that it would only appeal to a certain age group though, as the story itself and the themes it develops are absolutely timeless.img_camping-tent-silhouette-25The portrayal of Maggie’s thoughts and actions as she falls in love for the first time are so believable, so accessible and I was totally transported back in time to my experiences. I especially liked how Thrash shows how monumentally important the smallest moments felt; arms brushing against each other, a caught look, treasured conversations that were perhaps quite average on the surface but that you spent hours trying to read in between the lines of. The novel really evokes those familiar feelings of adolescence; the insecurities, the awkwardness and the sheer, exhilarating intensity of it all.img_camping-tent-silhouette-25The contrast between this gentle love story and the values held by the camp leaders is powerful. Though coming out is not easy for Maggie by any means, the grown ups cause far more problems than her fellow campers. Towards the end, one of the leaders tells Maggie she must stop all this nonsense as camp is a space for girls to be free and innocent and her behaviour is therefore unfair on the other girls. Maggie is made to feel that she is a bad person, that her feelings are wrong and must be suppressed. Erin is then seen as a predator, though she is only a couple of years older than Maggie, who has turned Maggie into something undesirable. I felt so angry on Maggie’s behalf and so angry that such ways of thinking still very much exist eighteen years on.img_camping-tent-silhouette-25In terms of the artwork, I believe Thrash has a style that matches the narrative and the characters brilliantly. It is the art of a 15-year-old Maggie with clean, sparing illustrations and a dreamy palette of colours. They are raw rather than refined, direct rather than focused on subtly.img_camping-tent-silhouette-25Though they may at first appear to be simple, the panels are cleverly thought out to interact with what the words don’t say. And by not over complicating the artwork I feel that Thrash allows the reader enough room to interpret what is happening for themselves – the images are starting points, guidelines.

Thrash’s story is incredibly bitter sweet, this is not a story of happy ever afters but a genuine story of a vulnerable, fragile relationship, full of hope and missed opportunities. You may need tissues.

Two magical reads: The Disappearances and The Memory Trees

I came across both The Disappearances by Emily Bain Murphy and The Memory Trees by Kali Wallace through my monthly Book Box Club subscription. These boxes full of bookish loveliness are imaginative and incredibly well thought out. If you want to find out more, have a look at their website here and their blog is a great place to have a look at past unboxings.

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I read the books one after another as I’m really enjoying a themed reading approach this summer. And here the theme is magic -but not in terms of witches, wizards and spells – more of a subtle magic embedded into our world and an element of mystery thrown in for good measure.

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I adored The Disappearances in so many ways. It is the story of Aila and her younger brother Miles, who go to stay in the rather mysterious, remote town of Sterling. As their mother has recently died, and their father is called up to serve in the second world war, they go to live with their mother’s best friend and her family. Every seven years something disappears in Stirling such as people’s reflections, the stars and the ability to dream.  Aila realises that this is all somehow connected to her mother’s past and sets out to find the truth and stop any further disappearances from happening. There is a rather lovely romance too.

I loved…zinc-wire-star-garland-nkuku

…the gorgeous characters, especially Aila. Each character is individual, there isn’t a trope in sight and there is also a complexity to the characters that makes them feel very real and easy to engage with.

…the World War II setting. The period fitted into the narrative beautifully, the subtle details adding to the richness.

…the theme of searching for belonging and how it feels to be an outsider. Each of the characters searches for their place in the world in their own way; they are united in their longing for human connection. This theme was beautifully explored and really invited the reader to see events and characters from different perspectives.

…the interweaving of Shakespeare and his texts as clues for the mystery. I thought this was brilliant, using snippets from his works to guide the mystery of the disappearances. What a great way to entice young adults into reading Shakespeare!

…the exploration of how much we take for granted in the world we live in. This wasn’t done in a preachy and obvious way, more like gentle nudges to notice the world around you. Imagine not being able to see the stars at night, use colours to create or hear music.

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I had more of a mixed reading experience with The Memory Trees, absolutely loving parts of it but also feeling rather confused at times. This is the story of Sorrow Lovegood set against the background of her strong female line of ancestors, who settled in a rather unusual apple orchard many years ago. Sorrow’s mum leads a very alternative lifestyle and struggles severely with her mental health, but Sorrow has her older sister Patience to look out for her until one day Patience dies in a fire. Returning to the mysterious orchard when she is 16, having lived the intervening years with her father, Sorrow is determined to rebuild a relationship with her mother and unlock her memories to find out the truth about Patience’s death.

I loved…zinc-wire-star-garland-nkuku

…the premise of a mysterious family legacy with strong female ancestors. This really intrigued me. There is a beautiful family tree image at beginning of the book to refer to as the ancestors emerge in the book and linked with this is the presence of the orchard, almost a character in itself,  which leaves mysterious trinkets for Sorrow to find.

…the exploration of what home is. Sorrow searches for belonging, a theme I always identify with. She feels compelled to return to the orchard and her past, to the memories of her sister, yet this home is also an incredibly difficult place, full of challenges. Sorrow is also very much an outsider, looking in and this aspect was written with great insight.

…the mother/daughter relationship. This is very much influenced by her mother’s mental health and Sorrow’s response to it. The portrayal of Sorrow’s mother is incredibly well developed, she really comes across as a complex character. A character who you can see is ill and who is constantly dealing with her mental health, whose thought processes and emotions you want to understand and empathise with, yet, at the same time also feeling such anger for some of the choices she makes in her role as a mother. It is Sorrow who takes it upon herself/is forced to be the calm and rational one, she is in many ways the parent in the relationship and loses a part of herself in the process. Fantastic character dynamics!

My problem with this book was…zinc-wire-star-garland-nkuku

…that I think the author included too many themes so that many were not developed in the detail I craved. There were parts that I didn’t feel connected or that didn’t have enough information for the reader to reach her own conclusions. The stories of the ancestors for example seemed like separate inserts instead of being interwoven in the story with the contemporary characters, meaning I couldn’t quite see what their purpose was. Another example is the hint of a lesbian relationship – this fades out and almost feels like an afterthought, yet it could have added so much to both narrative and character development.

Educated: Tara Westover

This memoir deserves all the praise and attention it is being given. I’m actually finding it hard to find the words for the impact this book has had on me.

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Let me start with a brief(ish) synopsis:

Tara grew up in the mountains of Idaho, her parents were survivalists, believing in the End of Days. Her father had such a distrust of society, education and medicine that the family lived in very isolated circumstances; Tara didn’t attend school and even the most severe injuries were only treated at home. An intense man with undiagnosed mental health problems and an extreme belief system, his influence on Tara’s life was immense. Her mother, a midwife, herbalist and healer, comes across as a woman who could stand her ground, who could have moments of great insight, yet who could also be blind to what was happening in her family and ultimately stood by her husband. Because of the isolation from mainstream society, there was no one to intervene when Tara’s older brother became increasingly violent towards her. When another of Tara’s brothers managed to go to college, her view of the world began to change; she educated herself at home and learned enough to achieve a place at a local university, leading to places at Harvard and Cambridge.Westover-imagewith-book-articleLarge

I need to say here that I came to this book with my own experiences of childhood trauma and that I found a kindred spirit in Tara. Though our circumstances and geography differ, there was so much in this book, that made it feel like I was reading about myself: that feeling of being totally alone and that no one would believe you even if you did speak up; the essence of surviving; finding escape and purpose through education; the continuous coming to terms with who I am; the darkness and detachment that at times prevails; forever trying to figure out how I feel about what happened in the past and those who should have been the nurturing, responsible adults in my life; always trying to figure out how I fit into the world now…

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A further reason why I loved this book is the style in which it is written. It could so easily have been a sensationalised piece, it could so easily have been a platform to voice blame and bitterness and portray only the dark side of her upbringing and all the consequences she has faced since leaving that life behind. But she doesn’t. Instead she reminds us that she can only write from her own memories, that memories are personal and can be subjective. She talked to family members about what they could remember to add further perspective. She also shows such a deep understanding of how complex family relationships can be. That there are, despite it all, some moments of tenderness, that it is ok to have happy childhood memories amongst the darkness, and that it is easier said than done to close your heart and cut off contact.  Her emotional honesty shines.

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The strength it took for Tara to explore her story, write it down and share it with an audience is awe -inspiring to be honest. What I will take away from this book is how remarkable women can be in the most challenging of environments, how vital education is and how there are so very many shades of grey when it comes to the people we love.

I shall leave you with a newspaper article and a couple of short videos that I found most interesting – just click the links below:

An interview in The Guardian

A Random House video where Tara speaks on the topic of estrangement

A CNN interview with Christiane Amanpour

 

New Zealand: Chappy, by Patricia Grace

So, I’ll be honest and admit that I’ve been dipping in and out of the Read Around the World Book Club these last few months. I’m beginning to realise that there is a difference between stretching my reading boundaries/widening my knowledge of the world and forcing myself to read a book because I feel I ‘should’. Not that you have to read all the books in the book club – it is just a pressure I put on myself (no surprise there then). However, when I read the blurb for Chappy, I knew that this was a story I wanted to explore further:

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“Uprooted from his privileged European life and sent to New Zealand to sort himself out, twenty-one-year-old Daniel pieces together the history of his Māori family. As his relatives revisit their past, Daniel learns of a remarkable love story between his Māori grandmother Oriwia and his Japanese grandfather Chappy. The more Daniel hears about his deceased grandfather, the more intriguing – and elusive – Chappy becomes.”

This is most definitely a character piece; the pace is very slow, fluid and gentle. I loved Grace’s style very much, but I also know some of the group found it frustrating and found it difficult to engage with.

Why this book spoke to me:

Daniel pieces himself together though discovering his family history, he finds his roots and purpose. He becomes a storyteller.  I think this is such a wonderful concept and one I very much identify with. I love how important traditions and ancestors are in this story:

“These are the moments when all time becomes present and you understand that you are merely a bead on an unbroken necklace which is without beginning or end.”

I love how connected to the land the characters are, especially Daniel’s uncle Akai:

“But not to worry, there’s singing in the mountains, laughter in the trees, dancing in the light of evening fires. There’s whispering in hearts and minds and shadows. That’s enough for me.”

The characters are just wonderful. Warmhearted, passionate, plain speaking, resilient Oriwia. Gentle, sweet, damaged and displaced Chappy. Quirky, nature loving, rooted, spirited Akai.

The importance Grace gives to storytelling, be Daniel’s own, his family’s or that of the Māori people.

The theme of community, which runs fiercely throughout. Everyone has value, everyone has a contribution to make. People take care of each other. People are genuinely interested in each other.

The exploration of what it means to be an immigrant is most poignant and is just as relevant today as it was in the time the book was set. The fear of the unknown, and consequently racism, causes such horrendous consequence – why are human beings not able to learn from past mistakes?

The portrayal of how the Māori people were treated in New Zealand in the 40s and 50s was incredibly thought provoking. I knew so little: the taking away of land, the everyday discrimination, the poverty, the segregation.

To finish, something I loved the most was how Daniel’s great grandfather defines belonging:

“Who he’s mountain? Who he’s river? Who he’s ancestors? Who he’s name? Who he is?”