NATION by Terry Pratchett

Book Quote:

“It is too lonely. It has too many memories! It has too much silenced laughter, too many unheard footsteps, too many soundless echoes since they died!”

Book Review:

Review by Vesna McMaster (DEC 19, 2010)

In interviews, Terry Pratchett has said that he had to write Nation. He pushed aside earlier scheduled work to accomplish this. The momentum of this need translates itself into a headlong rush which the reader experiences quite shortly after picking up the volume… until the end.

Well. This is not to overlook the consummate skill with which Pratchett  prunes his work for ever-smoother reading. It’s easy for a reader to consume this 400 page book in a day, if not a sitting. After this we waddle off, fulfilled and glowing, thinking “what a wonderful story, and my what a fast reader I must be” while Pratchett sits in his customary shadow, snickering under his hat. Undoubtedly entirely pleased with the result.

The setting is not Discworld. It’s the equivalent of the 19th century, and the settings are a South Sea island and Britain (the latter but briefly). It’s a parallel universe, where (for example) Darwin exists but events and monarchs are slightly adjusted.

Mau is a South Sea Island boy undertaking his adulthood-initiation trial on a nearby deserted island, when a Tsunami strikes. In his canoe, he survives and makes it back home to his own island, but meanwhile his village has been wiped away. Apart from the harrowing remains of his tribespeople laced through the branches of trees (which he somehow manages to dispose of properly) there are no humans left. The one exception is a solitary aristocratic English girl (calling herself “Daphne” because she doesn’t like the name “Ermintrude”) who has washed up on the wings of the wave and is stranded in the middle of the jungle island, in her wrecked ship, with all her Victorian ideas of propriety intact. The coming together of these two characters is mesmerising, inventive and bizarre to the point of utter believability, chest-emptyingly funny and soberingly poignant.

Since Mau was interrupted in his adult initiation ceremony, he officially has no soul. He floats between the childhood and adult world, unable to finish the transition he started before the catastrophe. In the nightmare of disposing of the dead and wandering about the wrecked island on his own, he talks to the entities of  “the Grandfathers’” and “Locaha,”  the god of death. The Grandfathers are the spirit voices of the islander’s ancestors, accustomed to being placated with fresh beer, honoured, and having the “god anchors” in their proper place. Locaha, like so many devils, plays a constant game of intimidation with Mau.

“Would it hurt to stop now? To slide back down into the dark and let the current take him? It would be the end of all grief, a blanketing of all bad memories.”

“Does not happen!”  is Mau’s assertion of life to this sibilation of Locaha’s as he slips into the depth of the sea while rescuing the ‘”ghost girl’” (Daphne).  The pain of self-discipline and the subjugation of the needs of the self to the needs of others are two central themes within this reverberating coming-of-age novel.

Like any good piece of this genre, it has its work cut out for it, as it has to encompass nothing less than the Whole of Life. No problem. Disillusionment with (and respect for) parents and ancestors, self-reliance, loss of the known ground, sacrifice of self, acceptance of responsibility, human understanding that transcends cultural differences, madness and the struggle with death, questions as to the very nature of time, surviving the uprooting of the most fundamental beliefs. All of these and more are easily ensconced within the masterful cocoon of the narrative, and the reader swings from thread to thread without any knowledge of how carefully he’s being handled. Or would do, if he kept his eyes shut and just enjoyed the ride.

This is why the novel is so adeptly written for the young adult market. Pratchett wishes the ride to be easy, but also for you to admire the view, and learn. The themes and continuity are not meant to be ignored: he carefully positions mirroring passages (typically regarding Daphne’s life and Mau’s life) sequentially. If Daphne thinks about her problems with her ancestors, Mau think of his mirror issues. If Mau wonders why so much responsibility is suddenly thrust on him, Daphne considers her case too. Nature echoes it, other protagonists support it. This description may make it sound overly simplistic in structure: this is utterly untrue. It is merely guiding younger readers on a smooth path of fine literary mastery.

As the days and weeks pass, more stragglers accumulate on the island (good and bad) and Mau finds that despite his “demon” status with his lack of an official soul, his youth, inexperience, recent exile from state of dependence on his parents, his spiritual confusion and paralysing doubts as to the state of the universe (in short, his state of being a teenager), despite all of these he is being nudged irrevocably into a role of leadership. Daphne travels her own mirror road, roughly in the same direction. A climax of pirates and cannibals is resolved before a ship from Britain turns up bearing Daphne’s father and much more.

At this point it might be wise to glance at another novel of the same genre, Lord of the Flies. The parallels (and differences) between the two are certainly no coincidence. Nation is perhaps the diametric opposite of the earlier book. Nation’s bereft islanders deal with their own climax of barbarism (inflicted on them, not produced by them) before the British arrive in their shiny uniforms. When they arrive, they do not rescue the stranded before being rescued (spiritually) by the “savages.” The demon of Death is no flapping parachutist on the mountain but a vivid confrontation of the darkest forces within ourselves – and is overcome conclusively, not run away from. If Lord of the Flies leaves the reader with grief and believable horror, Nation leaves only hope in the regenerative, not the destructive power nascent within the human psyche. It is no coincidence that the last chapter is entitled “The World Turned Upside Down.” In an age crammed with post-apocalyptic foreboding and doom, it is a radical statement of belief in the possibility of fundamental triumph of positive over negative.

I cannot think of any age-group or social group I would not recommend Nation to. It has material enough for absolutely everybody.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 206 readers
PUBLISHER: HarperCollins; Reprint edition (September 22, 2009)
REVIEWER: Vesna McMaster
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Terry Pratchett
EXTRAS: Excerpt
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December 19, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Coming-of-Age, Speculative (Beyond Reality), y Award Winning Author

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