Posted on December 15, 2008
As a Gaiman, Wolfe, and Tolkien fan, I’d always meant to try something by Terry Pratchett, but it wasn’t until Cory Doctorow’s glowing recommendation of his newest novel Nation that he finally made it onto my radar. And he’s going to stay there a while. If you’re a fan, you probably bought and happily devoured this book already; if not, know that this exciting, deeply thoughtful tale of shipwreck and derring-do is one of my favorite “young adult” novels of all time. And I’ve been through quite a few!
Fans of his Discworld novels may be surprised to learn that in this story, Pratchett has departed that whimsical world for a darker setting – the late 19th century. Mau, an young man from the south seas, is returning from a solitary journey when a huge tsunami nearly kills him, and wipes out his home island of Nation. But as someone tells him earlier on – “when much is taken, something is returned”; that same wave shipwrecks Ermintrude, a young English aristocrat, who later shortens that name to “Daphne”, for obvious reasons. After a near-fatal misunderstanding, the two join eventually forces, and try to carve out an existence for themselves (and later, others) on the island.
Sounds familiar? Shipwreck tales are a grand tradition in English literature, but from Robinson Crusoe to Lord of the Flies, each presents us a different vision of humanity. Pratchett’s is deeply humanistic – though a hemisphere apart, Mau and Daphne are both very sympathetic characters; their efforts to find food, water, and rebuild society they way they knew it lead to conflicts, many humorous moments, and several epiphanies about their disparate worlds. Though it’s marketed as a “young adult” novel, Pratchett doesn’t flinch at heading into substantially darker territory – the main characters also contend with suicidal thoughts, loneliness, and showdowns with some extremely vile antagonists. After all, what would a story like this be without the appearance or at least the mention of cannibals?
But it’s Pratchett’s critique of religion that may raise a few eyebrows. Through the course of the novel, Mau goes through an intense spiritual struggle, first railing at the island gods that failed to save his people, eventually questioning their existence altogether, even as heads a deeply religious society. Daphne is more scientifically-minded, but she too witnesses several things that eventually reshape her view of the world. Though I suspect most readers already have their minds made up one way or the other, it’s always great to be reminded to question everything, lest others become the masters of your inner life.
The ending is bittersweet, with several surprising revelations in its approach. Pratchett writes with such a warmth and wit that I could imagine him sharing this story with a group of children around the fireplace, hot cocoa close at hand. Or perhaps you’ll enjoy it as I did, lounging at the airport, waiting for a homeward-bound flight. Either way, I share Doctorow’s assessment – it’s a beautiful novel, and I hope many people both young and old get a chance to read it.