"There was a tap at the window." That's how Into the River by Ted Dawe begins.
Taps at windows, knocks on doors, the ring of a phone - writers often begin scenes with actions like this. They convey a sense of something about to happen.
Dawe's book has now received its own tap on the window, a tap by the hand of censorship laws, and the something that subsequently happened is ominous. On September 3 the president of the Film and Literature Board of Review, Dr Don Mathieson, QC, issued an Interim Restriction Order temporarily banning the sale or distribution of the novel.
Into the River won Book of the Year at the 2013 NZ Post Children's Book Awards. The first question anyone would ask, then, is how a book that has been available for over two years gets banned. The answer here is a religious-based lobby group known as Family First. I know Family First's work well from when I was the chief executive of the Broadcasting Standards Authority, a body that determines complaints on material that has been broadcast on television or radio.
There is something else I know well from that time - that any organisation standing in judgment over media content needs to ensure it is never acting rashly or unwisely. This is especially true of those, like the Board of Review, with the power to outlaw creative work. Such a power, if used at all, should only be employed in exceptional circumstances. But there appears to be nothing exceptional driving this ban.
"The classification of Into the River under the (Films, Videos, and Publications Classifications) Act is a matter of wide public concern, as evidenced by the volume of submissions to the Classification Office and published comments," reads the first reason the Order gives in justifying the ban.
When the wider public becomes concerned about something my Facebook feed is flooded with friends sharing their outrage or, more likely among my circle, bemusement over the outrage. However my feed, and indeed the general media, has not seen commentary of the magnitude alluded to in the Order. There seems to have been no "wide public concern" at all.
Instead what took place was a coordinated campaign by Family First. "FAMILY GROUP PUTS HALT ON EXPLICIT BOOK" trumpets its initial press release, further claiming that "hundreds of families ... wrote directly to the Censor's office" about the book. Hundreds of Family First families, no doubt.
While Family First were originally happy to take full credit for the book being pulled from shelves they subsequently backed down somewhat, saying that they never wanted it banned, only the classification re-examined.
In fact, the book's rating had already been reviewed. It has been altered several times since publication and, prior to the ban, it was "unrestricted".
The Order indicates that the Board of Review considers some type of rating necessary. "The correct classification of Into the River under the Act will operate as a semi-precedent, and will exert a significant influence upon other decisions portraying teenage sex and drug-taking," is another explanation given for the ban.
Tellingly Family First also took credit for this finding - this reason is quoted in their initial press release preceded by the words "The President agrees with our concern". Mere boastfulness or evidence of a system captured? It isn't clear.
"It is particularly appropriate that the Board should have an opportunity to consider the publication afresh without being inhibited in any way by any distribution occurring between now and the date of the Board's decision," reads yet another justification in the Order.
However, Into the River's classification had already been successfully considered and re-considered, all while it was freely available. How would its availability inhibit further re-consideration? The reasoning, like the ban itself, is farcical.
The ban becomes even more ludicrous when you realise how easy it is to circumvent. Immediately after learning about the ban I purchased a copy of Into the River from the Amazon US store. Seconds later the cover image of the book the Board of Review didn't want me to read shimmered onto my Kindle screen.
Family First's press release had described the book as "offensive" and full of "sexually explicit material". A review on their website dating back to 2013 goes much further, describing it as a "graphic, repulsive book", its themes "abhorrent".
I found the book far from "abhorrent" but that hardly surprised me. Family First's view of world is rather narrow. Their website lists a "natural family" as "the union of a man and a woman through marriage for the purposes of ... raising children". According to them many of our families are "unnatural". What they think of as "offensive", then, is likely "acceptable" to others.
I am sure many people will, like me, be unconcerned with the content of the book. Some will agree with Family First and want its availability restricted. But, the real issue here isn't the content of the book, it is the ban and the effect it may have on free speech.
The prohibition of any work carries serious consequences for free speech. It acts as a chill wind to future endeavor, a warning not to push boundaries, to not challenge or question.
The banning of Into the River is warning to us all of us who value creativity and free expression to be vigilant. We must closely watch the actions of those who oversee our media content and, in particular, we must ensure they are not captured by the loudest voice in their ears.
Dominic Sheehan is an award-winning author and former chief executive of the Broadcasting Standards Authority. He is currently working on The Mythic series of novels.