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Book review: The Earth Cries Out by Bonnie Etherington

 

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.