The Earth Cries Out by Bonnie Etherington.
Auckland: Penguin Random House (NZ) Vintage (2017).
RRP: $38. Pb, 285pp.
Reviewed by Patricia Prime.
A well-written beginning to any novel will tell you a lot about the book that follows. While the protagonist in Bonnie Hetherington’s The Earth Cries Out is a child at the beginning of the book, she is affected by what happened to her sister. In the following passage we feel the loneliness and sadness of the girl.
In the days while we waited for Julia to die, and before my father decided that atonement was in order and the mountains of Irian Jaya were just the place to find it, I sat for hours behind the bathroom block at school, poking a stick into a decades-old bullet hole in the concrete wall. (p 10).
These sentences establish the tragedy with which the book is laced. Though serious, The Earth Cries Out is not so tragic that the characters cannot move on. And move on they do – to an ‘old-new village house’ in the land ‘once called Irian Jaya’, but is now called Papua. The child Ruth decides to tell her side of the story:
This telling is supposed to be a kind of healing, through it will not be able to tell everything and it might not always look like a healing – just as a wound’s pre-scab masks its own growth. (p 14).
The characters do move on from their tragedy, albeit mostly with a dry fatalism. In the second chapter ‘Breadfruit’ No Man’s Land, 1944, for example, the narrator recollects growing breadfruit and recounts the story of the island of New Guinea during the war and of a plane that went missing with three men on board. One of them is called Michael. In this passage, she tells what happened to him, comparing his broken body to the ripe breadfruit:
Michael’s body fell near a breadfruit tree and rotted along with its fallen fruit. This is how you choose a good breadfruit to eat, his mother told him as a child. Its skin will be cracked a little. Maybe there will be some dried sap. And you will be able to smell it and feel that the flesh is as smooth as a girl’s neck. (p 27).
In the following chapter, the narrator remembers stories about her parents’ marriage, her and her sister’s childhood and ‘the darkness between my mother and father.’ For all the appearance of being a happy family, the next few chapters reveal a growing tension between the parents, as we see in this passage, where everything appears to be happy on the surface, but tensions are growing beneath:
He stood in the kitchen doorway for a moment, just looking at my mother, and his eyes crinkled at the corners like they always did when a join in one of his cabinets went together just right, or like on the nights when he and Mum put their anger and disagreements in a corner so they could watch TV together and share a packet of chocolate biscuits on the couch in the yellow house. Julia and I were not supposed to see. (p 46).
The narrator is a well-drawn character, and the one who drives the novel, both literally and figuratively. As befits the central figure of the novel, Ruth reveals the vibrant landscape, her changing world and her parents’ struggle to succeed in the middle of nowhere. The narrator goes backwards and forwards in time, sometimes recalling childhood, her relationship with her sister and her parents and, at other times, her new life in the village. By chapter twelve, she can tell what happened to her sister by recollecting what happened to a doll. The details are horrific:
When a doll burns, its hair goes first. Then the padded cotton torso, if it is one of those dolls that used to be made that way. It curls and peels, like I now know skin will do. The eyes melt and turn black, plastic pupils relaxing backwards in the heat, and the porcelain doesn’t really burn but glows red. Cracks, snaps. There are charred edges. In the end, all that is left are blackened porcelain toes, an empty porcelain skull. And porcelain fingers curled into permanent fists. (p 99).
She describes life in Irian Jaya, with its wars and riots, fighting and shooting:
Before Julia, after Julia. So far, alI I had to measure by. So I chased the stories of the fighting, of the riots and the shootings. Tried to make them mine so that one day I might say that I was alive for those times, so I could have a rod to measure my life by. (p 146).
This all sounds melodramatic. But the novel builds with calm resignation that stills the sense of dislocation, anger, frustration and powerlessness.
Ruth’s journey in the new country is not only geographical but emotional and revealing. She is clearly aware of the part she must play in trying to reunite her parents. By the end of the novel, she will come to terms with what she has discovered: the ghosts of the past, the difficulties of the future. But she also realises that she doesn’t know everything that has taken place in the past. The closing chapters see mother and daughter brought together:
There we were, down by the river, where we could each look at the other and see. See Miriam, not just mother. See Ru, not just sister-less. I breathed in the dark scent of the river and my mother. There was a certain thickness of sunlight. Somewhere there was a buzz of warm. (p 278).
The Earth Cries Out is an astonishing evocation of the fragility of life, of bearing witness to stories (perhaps only half learned) of those who have been silenced. The author has several surprises in her narrative and the writing, with its clear descriptions and evocations of life in a small village, is lyrical and provides a vivid picture of family struggling to come to terms with what life offers them.
Patricia Prime, besides being a regular contributor to takahē, is co-editor of Kokako and assistant editor of Haibun Today. Patricia’s primary interest is Japanese short form poetry: haiku, tanka, haibun and tanka prose and she has published a book of collaborative tanka sequences called Shizuka (2015).