Sunday, December 28, 2008
The Bookshelf: Nation by Terry Pratchett
It is nearly impossible to talk about Terry Pratchett’s recent work without mentioning the author’s ongoing struggle with Alzheimer’s; it’s a senseless and tragic thing which threatens to take a charming and talented person away from us. Of course, the author has been keen to remind everyone that he’s still alive and fighting and that we should perhaps wait a while before composing eulogies. Still, Terry Pratchett’s NATION (which I have to continually remind myself is NOT called Terry Nation’s PRATCHETT) is itself a novel dealing with senseless tragedy and our attempts at making sense of said situations, and getting by afterwards. Though billed as a young adult novel, it feels aimed at a broader range of readers, and it’s an engaging and provocative story which raises a lot of challenging questions no matter the age of the reader. The skill with which Pratchett handles what can be inflammatory, unpleasant, or even just familiar subject matter is remarkable.
The majority of the book centers around Mau, a boy from an island community who has just completed part of his rite of passage to become a man. (His precise age is never set down, but I’m going to say he’s a teenager because that seems to fit.) However, on his way home, he lives through and becomes the sole survivor of a massive tidal wave that destroys the society of Nation and everyone he knew. The boy’s hopes of completing the rites of manhood are dashed, and his faith in the gods who allowed this to happen are almost totally destroyed, but a voice in his head tells him to go through the proper rituals to bury his kinsmen at sea and begin re-founding Nation all by himself. He’s not alone for long, though, because the wave carries with it a ship, and the sole survivor of the wreck is Daphne (or Ermintrude, as she hates being called), youngest heir to the throne of Britain who was being transported there to fulfill some contractual business best left aside for now. She’s about his age but that’s all they have in common, and they have to try and communicate as survivors of nearby islands, and a few unsavory characters, drift in.
Response to tragedy has been an increasingly popular theme of fiction in recent years, for obvious reasons. I’m not sure things are worse now than they’ve ever been, but between sudden natural disasters and endless wars it’s gotten to be a bit much. Inevitably, how you can reconcile a belief in a benevolent deity or deities with the objective existence of death and calamity is a big question for many of us. Pratchett himself is an atheist, and no stranger to criticism of religion, so once I worked out that this was going to be a main theme I did not hold out much hope for an answer that was not, “You can’t, God either does not exist or is a right bastard.” Which, in brief, I’ve heard already.
What we get is a little more complicated. Mau falls out with the gods pretty quickly, but other characters we meet hold on to their faith, and the events that take place are open to interpretation. It’s provocative whatever position you come at it from, and Pratchett doesn’t seem interested in presenting an answer so much as prodding the reader and throwing the issue out there.
Nor is religion the only subject on the table. I’m not even sure if it’s the main one. I think it’s more about how we cope with disaster. This involves faith and the loss of same, but equally important are the social structures that are broken and torn, needing to be repaired but inevitably being changed in the process. As the official man of Nation, Mau has to make sure that people are fed and cared for, that beer gets made, that women have a place to stay, and that the god anchors are in their proper place even if Mau doesn’t believe they’re important, because others do. We essentially see a new culture born from the ashes of an old one, and that’s interesting.
It helps that Pratchett writes this all with his usual deft comic touch. The subject matter is grim, and not trivialized, but the tragedy is so quick and the need for the survivors to get to surviving so urgent that we don’t dwell on it any more than we need to. The tone instead is very matter-of-fact, and no doubt the author had to keep the pace brisk for the YA market (though young adult fiction can get a LOT more depressing than this, believe you me.)
The one part of the book that doesn’t fit at all is a plot device brought up early, forgotten for most of the novel, and raised again near the end without much urgency. There’s apparently some kind of virus sweeping Britain, and the Royal Family all caught it and died quite suddenly, and there’s an esoteric clause stating that the new monarch needs to be coronated within a certain amount of time or the entire country gets turned over to France or something, and this leads to Daphne (who is not the new monarch, but is the daughter of him, I think) being on the boat that runs way too far aground. It’s not a bad plotline, but it’s a lot more than is necessary to get her into the story, and though there’s a thematic link, it seems like a concept best explored in another book altogether. Also, though it’s not usually expected that an author give every character’s age, it would have prevented me from somehow imagining Daphne as being in her early 20s and Mau as around 10, and thus being more weirded out than I should have been when faint romantic elements started cropping up.
I enjoyed NATION quite a bit, and it’s a book that holds up well in the memory. It’s a book about tragedy that is not at all depressing, because it’s also about the aftermath and how those left behind have to pick things up and move on. It raises questions and encourages the reader to consider multiple answers. Pratchett tackles some big issues here, and then turns around and asks us what we think. I appreciate that.