Book Review: Fosterling

By Paula Green

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Fosterling by Emma Neale
Random House $27.99

Book cover of Fosterling by Emma Neale. Photo / Supplied
Book cover of Fosterling by Emma Neale. Photo / Supplied

Emma Neale is a poet, novelist, teacher and anthologist living in Dunedin. Her latest novel, Fosterling, is the sort of book that can only come from multiple roles and experiences.

It makes tremendous use of the imagination, but the emotional and intellectual core of the book shows that this is the writing of a mother and an academic (she has a PhD) as much as it is the work of a storyteller and a poet.

It is no small feat to produce a novel that moves you on an emotional level as well as stimulating you in the realm of ideas - with language that is pleasing to the ear.

Fosterling is the story of Bu, a young man over seven feet tall and covered in thick hair. Hard to look at, he is variously called wild-man, mongrel-boy, Sasquatch, gentle giant, an innocent.

In the first few pages, when Bu is taking panic-driven flight in the woods, the revelation of his physical characteristics is as powerful as the unanswered questions that drive Neale's story.

Who is he? What is his history? Why does he take flight? From the opening pages, then, it is clear this is a story of alienation, outsiderness and rejection. It is also a tale of fear and ignorance.

Bu is taken to a Dunedin hospital where the world from which he has fled overpowers him. Seeing urban spaces and city people in the real rather than on television or the movies is unbearably disconcerting. His body mends but he remains mute.

On one level Neale has borrowed from Beauty and the Beast, yet like all good contemporary versions, the division between beauty and the wild one is complex rather than straightforward.

Bu meets Sandrine, a journalist on a local newspaper, who wants the scoop on this unfathomable beast, but to her surprise - and to use fairytale jargon - she is enchanted with him. As he begins to trust her, he begins to speak and as he begins to speak he falls for her.

Neale, however, is dishing out neither fairy tale endings nor fairy tale characters. Sandrine never fits the beauty mould just as Bu is more than beast; he is a layering of wisdoms, capabilities and decency.

Fosterling is the story of a man trying to make sense of an alien world and find a way to live within that world, but it is also the story of maternal love. The depth of feeling of Bu's second mother is gripping - never more so than when she tenderly weaves the story of Bu's origins in his boyhood ear, adding new elaborations each time.

Fosterling is also the story of the way we make and process news. The media circus around Bu shows the way the treatment of a story - and the need to get that story at all costs - has a ripple effect upon society.

I do think Neale is one of those New Zealand writers who has undeservedly fallen under the radar. Fosterling is testament to her virtuosity with words. She writes with intelligence, heart and a poet's lyricism. Highly recommended.

Paula Green is an Auckland poet and children's author

- NZ Herald

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