Roy delves into a family’s history in his debut novel, inspired by true events.
Marty Pawson is a divorced New Zealand software consultant. His life in Auckland seems pointless and without dignity (“phone charger back in its usual socket, its tiny green light pretending everything’s okay. All in its humdrum place”). Boorish with women and emotionally aloof, he suffers from profound banality; even his greatest challenges—divorce, alimony, sullen teenagers—seem sadly pedestrian. His late great-aunt Julia, whom he never met and only knows through a small cache of letters found after his mother’s funeral, led a very different kind of life. Marty slowly pieces together her existence: raised in Britain, she married a soldier from New Zealand in the aftermath of World War I and returned with him to the Otago high country, where she suspiciously died at the age of 20. Soon Marty is off on a fact-finding trip to remote Kinross Flat to dig through local archives and uncover secrets of postwar New Zealand—where the waving flags barely concealed widespread destitution and where survivors of the war were often more unlucky than those who never came home: “A few generations back, tragedy was normal,” Marty notes. Roy’s narrative technique is nothing fancy; instead, he bets on twin conceits: that one’s own family history is always surprisingly interesting, and that the same holds true for someone else’s. This gamble mostly pays off. The book does suffer from overly convenient plot devices, such as Marty’s friend Dan, a techie with near-instant access to public records, and a flashback to the 1960s, involving a journalist who wears her hair in a “severe bun,” is just a distraction. Also, Roy’s attempt to channel a sheepdog’s perspective may horrify Jack London fans. In any event, such gimmicks are unnecessary, as the strength of the novel lies in its straightforwardness. As Roy goes on an intergenerational walkabout through rural New Zealand, readers will be glad they went along.
A simple story well told, full of local history and Kiwi lore.