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.
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.
(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!