Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Nation by Terry Pratchett

Perhaps [the gods] do exist. I want to know why they act as if they don't...

I've been a lover of Terry Pratchett (his books, I mean) for many years now. To me, his books feel like old friends who happen to also be outrageously funny. I've heard critics say his humour is sophmoric, but I think that's just sour grapes. He's a brilliant man. With Nation, he has produced a book which stands out from the rest of his work, a book which allows his trademark wit to be complicated by deep emotion, loss, and the failure of faith. Nation is a coming-of-age story of great sophistication and maturity, yet magically it's also enormously entertaining. Only Pratchett could attain such a balance. I think it is telling that he wrote Nation during the period that he was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's disease, a diagnosis which he reacted to with a "sense of loss and abandonment" and great anger. These feelings find plenty of expression in Nation, particularly in the character of Mau, the book's protagonist. Despite it being precisely tuned into its teen audience, this feels to me like a very personal book for Pratchett.

The story takes place not in Pratchett's usual discworld, but in a parallel universe to earth, on an island in the Pacific Ocean which the inhabitants refer to as the Nation. Mau is nearing the end of his people's coming-to-manhood rites, which involve being taken to another island and left to build your own canoe and paddle home. Mau leaves his boy soul on the boy's island and will receive a new man soul upon his return to the Nation. But while he is at sea, a tidal wave sweeps over his island and destroys his whole people. The same wave deposits a British passenger vessel on the island, its only survivor a minor royal Mau's age named Daphne. Mau and Daphne, who share no common language or culture, together take on the responsibility of survival, and eventually of reforming the Nation out of the survivors from nearby islands who straggle in. But Mau, according to his people's beliefs, no longer has a soul, and is plunged into a spiritual crisis which causes him to question many things. Why have the old gods failed him? Why do the voices of the grandfathers now deliver such futile guidance? Can he have faith in anything but death?

Thinking: This book contains some. Whether you try it at home is up to you.

Nation has been awarded the L.A. Times book prize for young adult literature.

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