THE REED WARBLER
by Ian Wedde (Victoria University Press, $35)
Reviewed by David Hill
On the first morning of level 3, people lined up outside takeaways before they opened. Cue head shaking and pursed lips. On the first day that takeaways for the mind – as in bookshops – opened, let's hope there were lines for Ian Wedde's new novel. Cue nodding and smiling.
The Reed Warbler is substantial physically (624 pages, since you were about to ask) as well as in literary terms, with a stadium-sized, deftly managed cast, that even finds room for Comrade Friedrich Engels. There's a family tree – thicket – which you'll need to keep bookmarked. A story to lower yourself into.
It's the late 19th century. Violated, pregnant, exiled and only 17, Josephina's chances of survival, let alone happiness, seem minimal. But, like the migratory bird of the book's title and cover which is stitched on the sampler she carries everywhere, she endures, even flourishes, during the eight decades of her glowingly independent, sensuous life.
That life, and others in the generations after, are counterpointed by two 21st century descendants and "best cousins", bickering their way towards reconciliation. So, the novel constantly steps between pasts and present, in hundreds of small scenes, each lit as brightly as an opera stage.
Its narrative glides around the globe: northern mill-town Germany – southern Denmark and revolutionary thought – Germany again – late Victorian Wellington – Raurimu. By wagon, train, sailing ship, train or modern car, people travel from or to multiple destinies. In every place, homes are sought, found or made, enriched or abandoned. We're taken to a Holstein smallholding, a great house with resident predator, a canal boat, muddy Wellington streets with "determined beds of parsley", raw back-country farmhouse.
Multiple motifs thread the narrative: New Zealand's ugly xenophobia during two world wars; land that blooms and fades; the deeds and legacies of near-legendary Wolf; Greta the clever journalist; glints of Josephina's "bright sharp wit".
It's as event-crammed as any airport novel but far more resonant, with its complex characters and the filaments among them, plus the richness and range of language, from discovered diary to Kiwi expletives, German verse, Theodora's Victorian sonorities, the rush of 8-year-old Aggie: "Our dog curly dide, we are all very sad".
Wedde has always been a dynamic writer, crackling with new directions and perspectives. "I like to quest about like a dog backtracking," he's written, and it's part of this narrative's thrust and energy. The very first pages blend inscribed German with demotic Kiwi – and find room for a quote from Denis Glover.
I'm recommending it? Emphatically. Invest a little of your staying-home money from levels 4 and 3.
THE BOOK OF LONGINGS
by Sue Monk Kidd (Viking, $35)
by Helen van Berkel
Did Jesus have a wife? It's an intriguing question that has fired imaginations since the crucifixion - although the church's stance seems to be a very definite no - but Sue Monk Kidd says yes, he did.
She then goes on to imagine who she was and how Jesus' life was when he was with her. Her name was Ana and she was the daughter of a wealthy man who worked in the court of Herod Antipas – he of John the Baptist beheading fame. She fell in love with the Messiah before he began his ministry. Her betrothal to the loathsome but wealthy landowner Nathaniel ben Nananiah, a wealthy landowner, gives Monk Kidd the opportunity to explain some of the traditions around marriage and the treatment of women as mere chattels. (Ana is only 14.)
The city in which Ana lives is afflicted by a "fever sickness" and the "entire city was closed up tight as a fist". The end result is that Nathaniel dies and Ana instead marries Jesus, travelling with him to his family compound in Nazareth. She makes it her mission to record the lives of the Biblical women - despite writing being banned for women.
I'm not convinced the women of Ana's era spent as much time bemoaning their lot wishing they had the kinds of freedoms we take for granted today.
Does it work? Mostly. There's something thrilling seeing characters and places met elsewhere (even if that was Sunday School) and getting an idea of their possible backstory. Readers will recognise the wicked Herod, the dancing Salome, the disciples, Mary, and will understand why Lazarus looks so much healthier later in the story. Religious belief is not necessary to enjoy Longings, but an open-mindedness and interest in a 2000-year-old story that has continued to resonate is.
Monk Kidd researched her book for four years and gives flesh to figures who dwelt in the shadows of the historical and religious background of the time. She has taken actual historical events, reimagined them and built a realistic narrative around them.
But Monk Kidd's ultimate goal is to give voice to women, too often silenced in history. They are often unnamed, their stories given barely a glancing mention, if at all; their roles undervalued and undermined. In a detailed author's note she cites Thunder: Perfect Mind, an ancient text found buried above the Nile in 1945. Warning: googling this will lead you down an internet rabbit hole of ancient texts and Jewish sects. I'd heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls, found about the same time but not Thunder: Perfect Mind, an ode to the femininity of God. Which kind of proves Monk Kidd's point: women have been silenced for too long.
By Wilbur Smith (Piccadilly Books, $16)
Reviewed by Helen van Berkel
Wilbur Smith and his Africa-based adventures were a staple of 1970s and 80s bookshelves when he reliably put out a novel every year, usually in time for Christmas. I devoured them as a child but lost track of Smith in about the early 90s.
So, I was surprised to discover that not only was he still writing but still maintaining his almost annual output. He's also still writing about the Courtney family we first met back in the 1960s. But now he has found a new audience and Cloudburst is aimed at younger readers.
A prodigious reader himself as a child, Smith and co-author Chris Wakling have produced a story that has the elements young readers love: exotic countries, brave children caught up in a struggle, incredible animals and assorted annoying characters of the type children love to hate. They don't fall into the trap of perfect heroes and irredeemable thugs and Cloudburst will likely bring a whole new generation to Smith's sagas.
Cloudburst focuses on a new generation of Courtneys, now living in London and working as environmental campaigners. Their 14-year-old son Jack, who has lived in England his entire life, joins his parents on a trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo to attend an environmental conference. His parents then disappear and it's up to Jack and his friends Amelia and Xander to rescue them. Their journey takes them into guerrilla territory – and gorilla territory – and to illegal mines, into the path of poachers and other ruthless people.
I have often wondered whether Smith's stories of swashbuckling colonial adventures would survive the test of time and changing attitudes towards racism and sexism, and was heartened to see the comment by Jack Courtney in a museum where Henry Stanley is introduced as the explorer who discovered Congo: "I'm pretty sure it was here before he found it, but still."
Cloudburst keeps the tension running and the finale is a shock. There is a little bit of violence and some disturbing aspects to the tale that some of the more fragile readers may be uncomfortable with so while it's aimed at 9 - 13 year olds, it is perhaps best for children who already read widely and are aware of the more unpleasant aspects of their world.
Cloudburst is the start of a series and I hope will bring a new generation of children not just to tales of Africa but also to the absolute joy of reading.