Book has local flavour
Kirsty Powell is touring the country promoting her novel The Strength of Eggshells. With its backdrop of the Mangapurua Valley, home to the famous Bridge to Nowhere, and a cast of characters that includes some of the actual settlers of the doomed valley, Kirsty was guaranteed a good local reception when she stopped off at Paige’s Book Gallery last Friday.
The book is about three generations of women — Meredith who settles in the Mangapurua Valley in 1932; her daughter Jane, whose story is told through a psychiatrist and her poetry, and Kate, the first person narrative, who puts it all together in a search for herself.
The book relies on the experiences of the author to give it integrity — each motorbike ride, activity in the shearing shed, farm job, bush walk, hunting trip, has authenticity, and her treatment of the men who returned from the horrors of war to farm the unforgiving terrain of the valley is sympathetic but not fawning.
“I grew up on a farm and I did want to show rural life as it is,” says Kirsty. “Particularly the resilience of rural people. Rural life is raw, you know?”
She hails from north Wairarapa, between Alfredton and Tiraumea.
“It’s an area with steep hill country, grows gorse and scrub really well and it slips and exposes the papa. So it’s not too different from a lot of places around here. My father was constantly having to refence his boundaries because of [slips].
“In 2014 I was lucky enough to do a course with Witi Ihimaera. Witi was the first person to encourage me to start. He said, ‘Bring me an idea.’ I took him my idea and told him I want to write about three generations of women, and he said, ‘Kirsty, in your first book that’s too much. Just do two generations.’ Of course I wanted to do the granddaughter and the grandmother, so I just put the poems between the chapters, but it was too confusing.” With Helen McNeil from Cloud Ink Press, her editor, she decided to make Beanstalk (the doctor) a real person, instead of a background character, and bring in the middle generation. The poetry remains as communication between the doctor and Jane, his patient.
“It’s fun writing poems on behalf of someone else,” says Kirsty.
Kirsty was inspired to write about the Mangapurua Valley after reading Arthur Bates’ definitive history, The Bridge to Nowhere (Wanganui Newspapers, 1981).
“After World War I, 36 returned soldiers took up leased settlement blocks in that area. The boundaries were squares and there’s no way you can fence that country into squares, so that to start with was practically an insurmountable problem.
“When I felt I wanted to write a novel, which was fiction over fact, there was no way I could fictionalise these people because they were so real.”
In her book Kirsty has used those people as secondary characters and inserted her fictional characters as squatters coming into the valley in 1932.
Kirsty says sticking to the timeline made it tricky.
“The easiest part of the book to write was the old story, with my fictional characters coming into the valley and interacting with the real people. It was harder writing the modern story, even though it had more fiction in it.”
The Strength of Eggshells is at Paige’s Book Gallery.