Pol­i­tics an­chors hu­man story

First-time nov­el­ist de­liv­ers book richly wo­ven with de­tail and strong, per­sonal themes, writes Siob­han Har­vey.

Sunday Star-Times - - ESCAPE -

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.

JOSH EASTWOOD

Au­thor Bon­nie Ether­ing­ton.

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