Book review: The Earth Cries Out by Bonnie Etherington

by Paula Morris / 27 April, 2017

A debut novelist finds inspiration in her New Guinea childhood.

Our fiction writers seem drawn to New Guinea, the Melanesian island named by Spanish explorers and sliced up by subsequent colonial powers. In her 2010 novel, Quinine, Kelly Ana Morey explored expatriate society in the German-controlled eastern side during the Edwardian era. In Mister Pip (2006), Lloyd Jones revealed the bloody intensity of Bougainville’s fight for independence from Papua New Guinea throughout the 1990s.

Like Bonnie Etherington, whose first novel is set in a West Papua squirming under Indonesian rule, these writers had personal connections with the region: Morey spent much of her childhood in PNG; Jones worked as a journalist covering Bougainville’s civil war. Etherington grew up in West Papua, where civil unrest and political struggles in the 90s were overshadowed by the deadlier conflict in Bougainville.

Her narrator is a young New Zealand-born woman recalling a fraught childhood in lush West Papua. Eight-year-old Ruth’s younger sister has died in a freak accident, and their parents, on the brink of divorce, decide “atonement was in order and the mountains of Irian Jaya were just the place to find it”. They arrive in the village of Yuvut in 1997, her father an idealist determined to build a hospital and make a difference, her resentful mother resolved only to mark off days on the calendar and attempt to bake bread in a stubborn oven.

Bonnie Etherington. Photo/Josh Eastwood

In this strange wilderness, bogged down by heat and unhappiness, Ruth searches for chickens’ eggs and chews sugar cane, resists the correspondence-school drudgery and learns from new friend Susumina the dangers of the river and jungle, not to mention the predatory police. The family will leave – that’s always clear – but they may not stay together.

Etherington intersperses the main story with “vignettes” each named for a native plant, but designed to inform us of more than New Guinea’s flora. Ruth tells us she’s returned to there “once as an adolescent and once as an adult” and has been collecting stories “to supplement the earlier memories”.

Some are framed as things the older Ruth has been told, revealing social, political and historical complexity. A few, however, are presented without narrative asides and some – such as “Banana”, the last thoughts of a Japanese soldier dying in an “unmapped swamp” in 1944 – suggest the imaginative projection of an author rather than a story collected by Ruth.

The vignettes and their additional cast members may be intended to disrupt the central white “outsider” narrative or reveal the bigger picture of a violent place that Ruth-the-child is too naive to understand. But they’re at once too much and not enough – second-hand news snippets that promise more than the main story delivers. Ruth insists other people’s stories are fragments that she “could not know how to tell and should not”. The narrator’s scruple shouldn’t be the novelist’s, especially in a book as absorbing and readable as this, rich in sensory detail and atmosphere.

The Earth Cries Out, by Bonnie Etherington (Vintage, $38)

This article was first published in the April 8, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.

MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage


Climate change: New study finds worst case scenario might not be as bad
85994 2018-01-18 08:27:48Z Environment

Climate change: New study finds worst case scenari…

by Charlie Dreaver

Global warming's worst case scenario may not be as bad as previously thought, a new climate change study says.

Read more
The science of sibling rivalries
85949 2018-01-18 00:00:00Z Science

The science of sibling rivalries

by Sally Blundell

Who was the favourite? Who got the most? Sibling relationships set up patterns that last a lifetime.

Read more
The Post – movie review
85900 2018-01-18 00:00:00Z Movies

The Post – movie review

by Peter Calder

Meryl Streep shines in Steven Spielberg’s thrilling Nixon-era newspaper drama.

Read more
Homegrown rosé: The best of New Zealand's pink wine
86039 2018-01-18 00:00:00Z Wine

Homegrown rosé: The best of New Zealand's pink win…

by Michael Cooper

More people are reaching for a home-grown tinted tipple of rosé.

Read more
MetroLOLs for January
85710 2018-01-18 00:00:00Z Humour

MetroLOLs for January

by Metro

This month's LOLs include: Things your office is planning to implement in 2018 to “cater to millennials”.

Read more
Ending solo mum sanction could cost govt $25m a year
85960 2018-01-17 13:14:44Z Social issues

Ending solo mum sanction could cost govt $25m a ye…

by Craig McCulloch

Officials warn the cost could blow out "considerably" if the plan encourages more mothers not to name their baby's father.

Read more
Confessions of a shoplifter
85914 2018-01-17 07:11:11Z Crime

Confessions of a shoplifter

by Anonymous

A sticky-fingered habit finally catches up with a young Kiwi crim, who discovers the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

Read more
Tidy Kiwis? We generate 734kg of waste each per year - and it's growing
85908 2018-01-17 06:59:32Z Environment

Tidy Kiwis? We generate 734kg of waste each per ye…

by Nita Blake-Persen

The government is vowing to cut the amount of waste New Zealanders create, which is estimated to be among the highest in the developed world.

Read more