Islands, cannibals and some thoughts on Nation

In a week during which I read R.M Ballantyne’s The Coral Island and Stevenson’s Treasure Island for class (I love this course) and seriously considered rereading Willard Price’s Cannibal Adventure after the first for more hilarious island-cannibal goodness, I also received a copy of Terry Pratchett’s new YA novel, Nation, in the post. (Thanks Shreyas!). Nation is also set on an island. It also has cannibals. It is one of the best things I’ve read in a while.

An edited version of the review below appeared in the Business Standard a few days ago:

***

It’s been a few years since Terry Pratchett last stepped out of his hugely successful Discworld universe. Nation, his wonderful new novel for young adults, is set in a world very similar to our own.
The Nation is an island in the South Pelagic (not, the author insists in his “multiple universes get-out-of-jail-free card” afterword, the South Pacific); an island so small that it doesn’t show up on European maps. Mau, a resident of the Nation, is returning from the Boys’ Island to complete the rituals that will make him officially a man. By the time he reaches, a tidal wave has swept away the village, killed everyone he knows, and deposited a British ship in the middle of the forest.

When she first boarded the Sweet Judy, Ermintrude (she prefers to be known as Daphne) was 139th in line to the throne of an England that rules most of the world, and that is afraid of nothing but the human leg. Now the direct heir, she must face the challenges afforded by a lewd ship’s parrot, a regrettable shortage of napkins, and a boy who refuses to wear trousers.

Any number of shipwreck stories for children have been written over the centuries. Mau and Daphne’s adventures are not merely concerned with survival or buried treasure (though they face both of these too). They must re-forge a nation from the survivors of the wave (who turn up in ones and twos) and from what they learn of the island’s past. Leadership for Pratchett involves doing all the dirty work and isn’t much fun. While Daphne must amputate limbs, deliver babies, and chew food for a toothless old woman, Mau is forced to commit unmentionable acts to obtain milk for a small child. Moreover, both must constantly battle the voices of their ancestors. The Grandfathers (whose two main concerns are religion and beer) shout constantly and irascibly in Mau’s head. Daphne has to overcome the teachings of a grandmother (“a mixture of Boadicea without the chariot, Catherine de’Medici without the poisoned rings and Attila the Hun without his wonderful sense of fun.”) with strong views on ladylike behaviour and the dangers of Going Native.

Set during the strongest days of the British Empire, Nation has a lot to say about colonialism, most of it scathing.

‘I can prove that no European has been in this cave before me.’ Daphne looked around, chest heaving with passion. ‘See the gold on the gods and the globe and the big door?’
‘Yes. Of course, dear. I could hardly fail to notice.’
‘There you are, then,’ said Daphne, picking up the lamp. It’s still here!’

Then there’s the budding romance between Daphne and Mau, watched closely by the rest of the Nation (“It was like being in a Jane Austen novel, but one with far less clothing.”) and punctuated with adorable cannibal-centred compliments.

‘No, they would never eat a woman,’ said Mau.
‘That’s very gentlemanly of them!’
‘No, they would feed you to their wives, so that they become beautiful.’ *

But the children have gone through trauma to get this far. Worn out from performing the last rites of his entire tribe, Mau is constantly questioning his gods, looking for an answer that will make his world make sense. Daphne has been doing the same since the death of her mother. In a book that tells us that “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” is a good song for a child because ‘it began with a question’, this questioning of everything becomes, for Pratchett, something of a moral imperative. Nation begins and ends with pictures of the stars, and on the last page of the book is printed a map of the world with South at the top. Pratchett will not condemn characters who shrink from, literally in this case, having their world turned upside down, but they’re never the ones he chooses as his heroes.

*There’s also a lovely moment when an elderly cannibal, having quizzed Daphne about her status as a wise woman, is finally convinced that she is incredibly clever and shyly informs her that he’d like to eat her brains. Aww.

4 Comments to “Islands, cannibals and some thoughts on Nation”

  1. “Madame,
    You are truly beautiful.
    May I have the pleasure of feasting on you?”

    Nope, just can’t make that sound romantic!

  2. I don’t know, I can actually see it being rather lovely.

  3. Silly question: But what is YA?

  4. Young Adult, i.e literature for people in/around their teens.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>