Politics anchors human story
First-time novelist delivers book richly woven with detail and strong, personal themes, writes Siobhan Harvey.
The Earth Cries Out Bonnie Etherington Vintage NZ, $38
In an age when the number of established publishers is shrinking locally and internationally, the arrival of a new literary novel by a first-time New Zealand author is a rare treat.
Not that new author, Bonnie Etherington lacks literary achievement. Far from it. Well before her book The
Earth Cries Out came into print, she’d amassed a cache of accolades, including short-listings for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and BNZ Katherine Mansfield Award. If these reflect her talent, they also strongly suggest the likely strength of this first release.
The Earth Cries Out is a brave, extensive book. It’s a story about what happens when Nelson builder Isaac moves his wife Miriam and daughter Ruth to a mountain village in Irian Jaya, Indonesia, (now known as West Papua) in 1997 to help construct a road and give life and a hospital to the local community. But this basic outline belies the deeper intrigue at the book’s core. For beneath the surface narrative of relocation and adventure, lies a darker plot connected to the family’s recent loss of Ruth’s sister, Julia, in a house-fire and their present immersion in the lives of locals deeply affected by conflict, retribution and exploitation.
What results is a book richly woven with detail and strong, personal themes. Isaac’s desire, for instance, to liberate his family from its ghosts and past harms only results in their confronting other, larger demons in their new homeland. While his role as builder – actual and spiritual – overlaps with the exploitative designs tyrants like Indonesian dictator Suharto have for the people the family settles among. Throughout, be it resident and newcomer, characters are immersed within and confronted daily by the havoc of post-colonial (Dutch) and ongoing colonial (Indonesian) subjugation, internal warring, unimaginable poverty, disease and abuse.
If this makes The Earth Cries Out sound like a dry political read, it’s not. Always Etherington anchors underlying politics to human story. As Ruth charts how her family takes to raising chickens and how she strikes up a formative friendship with local orphan Susumina for example, such seemingly everyday occurrences are offset by personal and communal turmoil rife in rural Irian Jaya. Time and again, themes of escape, inevitability, loss, personal freedom, family dynamics, social constraint, colonialism and migration arise.
Reading The Earth Cries Out, one’s reminded of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of
Darkness, Etherington’s dissection of colonialism and migration offering allusions back to its classic predecessor. Perhaps a more obvious reference point for contemporary readers is Lloyd Jones’ superb Booker Prize short-lister, Mr Pip, both books scathing accounts of the neglect and horrors of late 20th-century politics in the Pacific. Cleverly layered, intensely moving,
The Earth Cries Out is a profound first novel.