So… the blog is a bit Pratchett-heavy lately. The simple explanation is that I have finally discovered the man’s genius and my mood demands his particular mix of hilarious humor, social satire, and seriously clever, thought-provoking themes. There you have it! At this point, I’d read Pratchett’s shopping list, but because it is summer and I have a lot of his novels here (and unread), I went for the one with the prettiest and summeriest cover.
Published by: Doubleday, 2008
Hardcover: 410 pages
My rating: 9/10
First sentence: Imo set out one day to catch some fish, but there was no sea.
Finding himself alone on a desert island when everything and everyone he knows and loved has been washed away in a huge storm, Mau is the last surviving member of his nation. He’s also completely alone – or so he thinks until he finds the ghost girl. She has no toes, wears strange lacy trousers like the grandfather bird and gives him a stick which can make fire.
Daphne, sole survivor of the wreck of the Sweet Judy, almost immediately regrets trying to shoot the native boy. Thank goodness the powder was wet and the gun only produced a spark. She’s certain her father, distant cousin of the Royal family, will come and rescue her but it seems, for now, all she has for company is the boy and the foul-mouthed ship’s parrot.
As it happens, they are not alone for long. Other survivors start to arrive to take refuge on the island they all call the Nation and then raiders accompanied by murderous mutineers from the Sweet Judy. Together, Mau and Daphne discover some remarkable things – including how to milk a pig and why spitting in beer is a good thing – and start to forge a new Nation.
As can be expected from Terry Pratchett, the master story-teller, this new children’s novel is both witty and wise, encompassing themes of death and nationhood, while being extremely funny. Mau’s ancestors have something to teach us all. Mau just wishes they would shut up about it and let him get on with saving everyone’s lives!
When Terry Pratchett says in interviews that he gets better with every book, he is not lying. He seems to pour his heart and soul into his fiction, and while the writing has always been good, it became nothing short of remarkable in these last few books I’ve read. Whatever else you may think of Sir Terry and his sense of humor, nobody can dispute that he is a master storyteller who truly understands people and translates real humans onto the page.
This book starts with a tragedy. Mau is in the middle of his manhood ritual – getting safely back home from the Boy’s Island – when the wave strikes. It is the biggest wave he has ever seen and he only survives because he is in a canoe when it hits him. The Boy’s Island? Gone. Mau returns to his home to find his entire tribe – the Nation – gone. The last survivor of his people, he sends their dead bodies to the sea and grieves. But there is another human on the island. Daphne, whose true name is Ermintrude (but who’d want to be called that?), survived the wave aboard the Sweet Judy, a ship now stranded on the island, and mostly in pieces. Mau and this strange, white ghost girl have to try and build up a new Nation, and new lives for themselves.
The culture clash is expected but deftly handled. Neither Mau’s gods nor Daphne’s prim manners are portrayed in a way that makes them seem superior. They have each grown up in their own culture and now they have to find a way to understand each other and question what they’ve been taught all their lives. For Daphne, it may begin with not wearing 7 layers of clothing and actually showing her naked toes to strangers (gasp), for Mau – ever since the wave wiped out his family – it is the Big Question. Do the gods really exist? And if they do, how could they have let this happen?
As they both struggle to come to terms with their beliefs and their loss, more survivors appear on the island and a new, albeit small, Nation comes alive.
There is so much beauty on these pages and I am not sure where to begin. Daphne and Mau are wonderful protagonists. Mau’s self-doubt – for he is not a boy but never went through the proper manhood ritual, so he believes himself to have no soul – and Daphne’s keen scientific mind are not really all that different. The themes in this book may be obvious, but the characters are still at the center of the story, and I continued reading as much for Mau and Daphne as I did for the valuable life lessons. Pratchett doesn’t hit you over the head with a hammer of science. In this alternate Pacific Ocean nation (and it is alternate), neither Daphne nor the author find Mau’s culture and belief to be ridiculous or primitive. Yes, Daphne likes proof for the supposed miracles she sees – such as poison turning into beer – but she takes Mau’s gods seriously. This is a wonderful story that shows that different isn’t inferior – and to wrap this message in a wonderful, emotional, and funny story is the best way to deliver it.
The characters are vivid and real, they have gone through something terrible and deal with the aftermath in their own way. Mau thinks about giving himself to the darkness, Daphne tries to act the brave, proper lady. But inside – and the reader knows this – they are hurting and wondering about the future. As they slowly build their lives on the island, ideas start popping up. I loved the protagonists most of all because they enjoy thinking and through that learn more about the world and about themselves.
Someone had to eat the first oyster, you know.
Someone looked at a half shell full of snot and was brave.
Little asides like this may at first strike you as comic relief, a little fun to lighten the serious tone. But the thing that struck me over and over was that, despite being funny, there is so much truth in it as well. That is how people evolve, that is how inventions are made – by somebody doing something seemingly stupid or crazy, being brave, and discovering something new about the world. And in working together, amazing things can be achieved – such as the construction of a new Nation, even if it is different from the one before.
Take one strip of the vine lengthwise and yes, it needs the strength of two men to pull it apart. But weave five strands of it into a rope and a hundred men can’t break it. The more they pull, the more it binds together and the stronger it becomes. That is the Nation
Any book, for me, is carried by its characters and their growth. Both Mau and Daphne go through immense changes, not only because of the wave but out of sheer necessity. Daphne’s courage in the face of tragedy goes to show just how much she has grown. When this young girl with a passion for science performs an amputation, even Mau is surprised.
“[…] Those captives were treated very badly.”
“And you’ve been sawing the bad bits off them?”
“It’s called surgery, thank you so very much! It’s not hard if I can find someone to hold the instruction manual open at the right page.”
“No! No, I don’t think it’s wrong!” said Mau quickly. “It’s just that… it’s you doing it. I thought you hated the sight of blood.”
“That’s why I try to stop it. […]”
I have a fondness for pratical people and maybe that is why Tiffany Aching speaks to me so much. One thing I’ll definitely take away from this is that Terry Pratchett is made of Magic. I hope he will continue to write for many, many years and share his wisdom about humanity with us, in the shape of fantastic stories, peopled by lovable, wonderful characters.
Nation has also been adapted for the stage and while I’ll probably never get to see it, the pictures look beautiful. Of course the actors look much older than I picture the characters but I love how small details have been taken into account. On the right, Daphne – still rather proper in her dress – is wearing the grass skirt the Unknown Woman made for her. And Mau is trying out trousers in order to understand what makes trousermen so excited about them (turns out he’s quite fond of the pockets, if nothing much else).
This is marketed as one of Pratchett’s books for young people and while it definitely can be read by children and young adults, I believe it is even more suited to an adult readership. I remember, as a child, I read books for the pure pleasure of story. I didn’t care about messages, or the exploration of themes, or even world-building. I watched characters I liked do things that were interesting, and on that level, Nation succeeds. But it is the message that form the heart of this novel, it is the encouragement to think for yourself, and to go through the world with open eyes and an open mind.
THE GOOD: Wonderful characters who live through a sad but beautiful story. Brilliant exploration of serious themes with just a pinch of Pratchett’s trademark humor.
THE BAD: Takes a while to get into, some story elements (the Navy plotline) could have been left out.
BONUS: The filthy-mouthed parrot.
THE VERDICT: Highly recommended to Pratchett lovers or newcomers, to scientists and religious people, to those who have suffered through loss and pain, and those who are simply interested in a good story.