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Beryl Fletcher, Juno and Hannah (Review)

January 11, 2014
Beryl Fletcher, Juno and Hannah

Courtesy: Spinifex Press

I’ve been pretty remiss in my blog regarding New Zealand literature. I have read and enjoyed several New Zealand novelists, such as Keri Hulme, Janet Frame and Fiona Kidman, but the only New Zealand writer I’ve reviewed here to date has been Lloyd Jones. And so I was both intrigued and pleased when Spinifex Press sent me Juno and Hannah by New Zealand writer, Beryl Fletcher.

I’m embarrassed to say that I hadn’t heard of Fletcher, but she has some form! Her first novel, The Word Burners, won the 1992 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Best First Book for the Asia/Pacific region. Juno and Hannah is her fifth novel. She has also written a memoir and some short stories. The fact that four of her five novels have been published by Spinifex Press would suggest a feminist agenda but, while Juno and Hannah certainly has an element of women being challenged by patriarchal authority, it is not a preachy or proselytising book, any more than are the other Spinifex Press books I’ve reviewed. Rather, like them, its focus is women’s experience of the world.

Hmm … that’s a long introduction. Time to get to this particular world. Juno and Hannah is set in 1920s New Zealand. The eponymous sisters are living in a religious commune, and are without parents. Despite the fact that Juno’s name appears first in the title, Hannah is the older. Two things happen in the opening pages of the book which cause Hannah to “run away” with Juno. The first is that she is punished with a month’s isolation for saving a strange man from drowning by breathing life into him – and thereby arousing fears of witchcraft, of communing with the spirits. It’s a clearly unjust punishment from (the significantly named) Abraham, who claims to adhere to “the sacred principles of Christian justice”. The second thing is her hearing that the community plans “to get rid of” 14-years-old Juno, probably to an orphanage in town. Juno, you see, requires special care as she is not quite normal – and the so-called Christian community “can’t carry a non-productive member”. This sets up what is essentially a Gothic adventure tale in which Hannah, with the help of a strange assortment of others, searches for a secure home for Juno and herself.

The novel (novella, really) is a page turner. There are good guys and bad guys (including eugenicists who have their sights on the “mentally defective” Juno), but sometimes we can’t always be sure who are the good guys. Hannah, a resilient and loyal young women but one who experienced abandonment at an early age, finds it hard to trust anyone, including those who offer help. In this mix are Hannah’s mother, her father and his mistress, the man she’d saved, and his sister. There are all sorts of Gothic archetypes here – cottages in the wood, horses pushed to their limits, storms, secrets, a sanatorium. While the story is told third person, we see much of it through Hannah’s inexperienced eyes, so when she is unsettled, so are we. And rightly so, because the world is an uncertain place.

Fletcher’s style is plain, direct, and yet also poetic. It comprises mostly short sentences, which keep the plot moving but which are interspersed every now and then with more Gothic descriptions. These are particularly effective because they are not overdone:

When the southerly blew itself out, fog crept up from the river and devoured all before it. Not one leaf moved, not one bird sang. One by one the trees melted away. The fog brought a terrible silence outside her prison that emulated the social death within.

And:

Something had changed. The hut was withdrawing into itself; the fire had gone out, empty tins had been dropped onto the clay floor. She touched the glass chimney of the paraffin lamp. It was cold.

I enjoyed reading this book, but am having trouble writing about it. I think this is because the themes are carried primarily through the plot. By this I mean, they are conveyed by who does what with whom, who appears and disappears, who chases whom, and who helps whom. I don’t really want to explain too much for fear of giving the story away. Briefly, though, the main themes are resilience and trust. As a young vulnerable woman responsible for an even more vulnerable sister, Hannah needs to be resilient to survive the world she finds herself in. She also needs to trust, but she must temper this with wariness because the world is not a safe place. Another theme is the responsibility to protect weaker members of our society, as Hannah does for Juno, but as was not done for her when she was “abandoned” in the religious community. In fact, “abandonment” is another theme. And finally is the theme of nurturing. Clearly, Hannah nurtures her sister, but the theme is also conveyed through the act of bread-baking, which occurs throughout the novel. Hannah is good at it, so is her mother Eleanor. Providing bread to others in need is one of the final, reassuring images of the novel.

Juno and Hannah is a compelling read. There were times when the plot seemed to be slipping from my grasp. Loose ends perhaps, or maybe just part of the uncertain world Fletcher was creating.  It was never enough, however, to stop my being invested in Hannah and her trials. There’s something about Fletcher’s direct narrative style evoking an almost other-worldly setting that drew me in. I didn’t want to put it down.

awwchallenge2014Beryl Fletcher
Juno and Hannah
North Melbourne: Spinifex Press, 2013
174pp.
ISBN:9781742198750

(Review copy supplied by Spinifex Press)

NOTE: I have included this review in the Australian Women Writers Challenge because Fletcher’s primary publisher is Spinifex Press (and because someone before me has also included her!). I hope Fletcher and any New Zealand readers here aren’t offended!

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. January 11, 2014 7:06 pm

    I know exactly what you mean about difficulty of writing about heavily plot driven books in a way that doesn’t spoil it – but you’ve done enough here to tempt me for sure!!! Am particularly struck by your comment that it’s a book you don’t want to put down – I always think that’s a great accolade for any book! Have to admit, I’ve never read any New Zealand authors – or if I have I didn’t know it at the time!! This sounds like a good read and having checked it’s available in UK, I will add this to my list to get over next few weeks!

    • January 11, 2014 9:28 pm

      Oh that’s great Col. I’ll be interested to hear what you think. It’s not your usual plot-driven book … but I’ll say no more.

  2. January 12, 2014 6:57 am

    I can’t think if I’ve ever read a New Zealand author! This seems very bad to me. Do you know if I have? Ack!

    • January 12, 2014 12:37 pm

      Yes, I think you have … Elizabeth Knox is a New Zealander and I think you’ve read and loved some of her books?

  3. buriedinprint permalink
    January 14, 2014 6:59 am

    When attached to the characters, I find myself willing to allow a few threads to slip. And, with such a compelling story as this one seems to be, I always wonder if I’m not just too swept away to have paid attention to all the details either. (That’s quite likely just me: I’m not saying your point isn’t valid. Heheh) Thanks for discussing this novel: it certainly sounds intriguing and I’ve not seen mention of it elsewhere.

    • January 14, 2014 7:47 am

      Thanks Buried … That’s how I feel … I wondered too, here, whether it was me missing a nuance or the author wanting some things left unexplained. Whatever, it was an engrossing read.

  4. January 15, 2014 6:36 am

    Oh, this sounds good. I like books with good plots that also carry the themes. They don’t seem to come along very often, good ones at least. I think you wrote about the but just fine 🙂

    • January 15, 2014 8:27 am

      Thanks Stefanie … If people are liking the sound of it I must have done something right!

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