by Kate Sawyer
There's a story we tell in our whānau: when my parents left England in the late 70s to emigrate to Aotearoa, my grandfather wept because he believed he would never see his daughter again. When I lived in England 30 years later, I was told repeatedly that New Zealand was just like England in the 50s (that is, a nostalgic vision of better times).
This English vision of New Zealand as both the absolute ends of the Earth and an imaginary land of milk and honey forms the basis of The Stranding, the debut novel of English writer Kate Sawyer. Set roughly in the present (although without Covid), it follows Englishwoman Ruth who travels here just in time for a nuclear-esque apocalypse, which she survives by sheltering inside the corpse of a beached whale with a Māori man called Nik. It's an intriguing premise but unfortunately the rest of the pukapuka fails to maintain the dramatic tension of the initial set-up, and much of the second half lags.
The Stranding alternates chapters set in London before the apocalypse with those set somewhere on the coast of the North Island afterwards. The sense of place is excellent in the English half of the pukapuka but never quite rings true for the Kiwi chapters. The post-apocalyptic setting is also oddly free from any sense of jeopardy: having survived the initial blast, Ruth and Nik are mostly just ... fine.
The people are all dead and buildings flattened, but the flora and fauna have somehow endured, and the waterways are miraculously uncontaminated: "around them the land seems to be offering up a bounty. Passionfruit hang ripe and dripping from trees, watercress is knotted in the streams, vines and fruit trees that were once cultivated spring back to life ..."
There are some attempts at psychological realism but mostly The Stranding feels like a romantic desert-island fantasy: "[Ruth] cannot help but admire [Nik's] form – he seems almost Grecian as he labours in the sun."
It was a bold move to create a major character indigenous to a country you've never lived in, and Sawyer wisely spends most of the pukapuka writing from Ruth's perspective rather than trying to fully imagine Nik. Sawyer's English conception of our country as an exotic South Sea island getaway also shows up in many of the small details of this novel.
The Stranding is for readers who want to think of New Zealand as a fantasy back-up version of a better England, not for those of us who actually live here.
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Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage