Nation

Sometimes I love something so much I don’t write about it. I know that sound counterintuitive but it's because I don't think I can do it justice. A good example is Terry Pratchett's new novel Nation, which is so fantastic I found myself daydreaming about it a couple of weeks after I finished it. Unlike many of pTerry's books, Nation doesn't take place on the Discworld, his famous planet consisting of four elephants carrying a giant turtle on their backs. Instead this one takes place in a slightly different version of Earth, probably at some point in what would have been Queen Victoria's reign.

Mau has been living on a tiny island for a month, all alone, building a boat, as part of his rite of manhood. He's left his boyhood behind and when he returns to the Nation he'll go through a manhood ceremony, get the Nation's tattoo and become a man. In the meantime he's neither fish nor fowl, neither boy nor man. As Mau prepares to leave the island, ecstatic about returning home and becoming a man, strange things happen. All the birds panic and there are other signs. Mau replaces his axe in the giant tree that dominates the island and gets into his boat and paddles home towards the Nation. And that's when the tsunami hits.

Meanwhile a young white lady is being escorted to her father on a ship captained by a very religious man. Sadly for him, all the hymns in the world aren't any help when his ship is caught up in the very same tsunami. The ship skims over the forests of the Nation and comes to rest, contents jumbled, with two living occupants; a parrot and Ermintrude, the young lady listed above, who prefers the name Daphne. She's battered and confused but trained to behave with the utmost propriety. But of course that's the manners the British aristocracy teaches while Mau has his own equally important set of rules that he must obey, one of which is having a celebration upon his return from the island where he has been turning from a boy to a man.

Every member of the Nation should be lined up at the edge of the sea, awaiting his triumphant return. But the wave strikes as he is returning and the people are defenseless against its racing power. Poor Mau barely survives the trip back but when he finds he is the only one left he dies a little, stepping back into himself while a ghost version comes forward and takes care of the many dead, who must be returned to the sea so they can be reborn as dolphins.

Mau faces a huge number of obstacles, not least the terrible solitude he suffers as the last of the Nation. He eventually meets Daphne, whom his tribe refers to as a member of another tribe called the trousermen as they insist on wearing ridiculous trousers in the hot sun. Mau and Daphne manage to figure out a rudimentary communication system just in time as refugees from other islands start arriving. The first to arrive include a nearly catatonic mother and her dehydrated baby. Mau tries to get Daphne to nurse the baby, but she is too young and of course not lactating so he sets off on an extremely dangerous mission to gather milk from the only other mammals on the island.

Both Mau and Daphne spend a lot of time being brave. For Daphne simply interacting with a mostly naked boy from another culture takes a lot of grit. Learning to live on the island and help the various arriving refugees is also quite different from her normal experiences back in her home country. But it's when her nemesis from the ship suddenly shows up that she has to be at her bravest.

Mau not only has the entire responsibilities of the island and everyone on it but he is carrying the terrible weight of grief for his lost people. It is his responsibility to carry on and make the Nation continues to exist, a fearsome responsibility for anyone, much less someone who has no real place in their social strata. If he had been able to go through the manhood rituals he would be a man or if he hadn't left boyhood behind him just as the tsunami struck he would have a better idea of who he is and where he stands. But he must make it up as he goes along.

Nation is a beautiful book that skillfully explores the horrors of loneliness and responsibility that arrives too soon, while avoiding all the annoying stereotypes about the noble savage or the illiterate native. pTerry has added some beautiful touches that I can't mention without spoiling the book, but they made me deeply happy. Nation is both heartbreaking and uplifting, funny and tragic and I strongly recommend that you go and get it right now. Don’t waste another second.

One-Paragraph Review

This week's one-paragraph review is from Marta who writes in to say, "You know that commercial for the bank with the kids? Some have a pony and some have a truck. The adult looks like a child molester, the kids are being tortured and the bank is named after a diet drug that makes you poop your pants. WTG!" Do you have a one-paragraph (or smaller) review you'd like to share? Send it in to me for consideration. You can reach me at feedback@qualitytimeweekly.com.