Friday, 13 February 2015

Their children will inherit the earth...

This brief collection of interlinked short stories, set in colonial New Zealand, around Christchurch, is linked not only by character but by theme; children lost and found, dead and alive, grown-up or in infancy. While one woman hopes for pregnancy, we discover the darker side of nineteenth-century childbirth in the premises of a baby farmer, taking in unwanted, illegitimate infants who are condemned to a gradual death through neglect and drugging. In another story, a remarried woman realises, too late, that as her daughter has grown into adolescence, she has grown away from her, and she has not been able to protect her. Rebecca Burns's writing style is clear, direct and compelling, and these stories are consistently readable. They perhaps err on the side of too little historical and geographical detail - while I liked the fact that they are stripped back to basics (unlike much historical fiction, which labours under the weight of its own research) occasionally I felt as if the Christchurch landscape might have been more vividly conveyed. However, Burns uses telling details well, and cleverly links these stories through particular objects as well as characters; the lamp with coloured glass that brightens up a prostitute's room is one good example.

Voice was something that I thought a lot about while reading these stories, which are all told in a different third-person perspective. On one level, the characters' voices are very similar, regardless of their differences of gender and situation. On another level, however, this consistency of tone contributes to the calmly hypnotic quality of the book, whereas jarringly different voices might have shaken the reader out of its spell. Overall, therefore, I felt that Burns had made the right decision in order to tell the narratives she wanted to tell. I'm afraid, however, that I was disappointed by the final contribution in the book, a story written by Maori writer Shelly Davies from the point of view of Haimona, a Maori man who provides a different perspective to the conflicts between white men and white women that we have seen played out over the preceding pages. I loved the idea of providing a counterpoint of this kind, and was very much looking forward to reading Davies's story. Unfortunately, to me, it read very similarly to the earlier stories in the book, just at the moment when a break with the unity of style provided by Burns would have worked well. Rather than interrupting and questioning these narratives, Haimona's narration seemed to add much less than it might have done, although it was still an interesting read. Nevertheless, The Settling Earth is a strong collection that may appeal even to those who don't think that they like reading short stories, and I would definitely recommend it.

I received a free review copy of this book from the author via NetGalley.

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