My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is the story of Bugs, a smart talking, street-wise 16 year old girl from small town New Zealand who thinks she’s got it all figured out.
And she does, in many ways.
Her Mum works double shifts as a cleaner at a fancy hotel servicing the booming tourist trade – a life she’d never had had if she hadn’t got pregnant with Bugs when she was a teenager. So Bugs knows about mistakes, because she is one.
Bugs has school counsellors telling her that, being Maori, she essentially has to defy statistics in order to achieve in life. So she’s knows about opportunities, because she has to make them for herself.
Bugs’ best friend, Jez, is routinely neglected by his mother and abused by his step-father, so she knows about hardship and disadvantage because her best mate doesn’t stand a chance.
Then a new girl hits town and upsets the balance. She’s prissy, melodramatic, spoilt. A loudmouth, with no appreciation for the wealth that falls in her lap – so Bugs knows all about privilege and birthright, because she watches people like Stone Cold take it for granted every single day.
Bugs feels as though her life is just another plot from one of the dystopian novels she reads; and she already knows the script inside out.
Or does she?
You could probably draw quite a few parallels between Hereaka’s novel and Ted Dawes’ “Into the River” which won the supreme NZ Post Book Award last year. Both are YA adult novels featuring Maori protagonists during their final years of education. Both are set predominantly at school, with teachers as key characters. Both involve vulnerable youth at a point of crisis or crossroads, and both speak to the persistence of racist attitudes that prevail within the NZ education system. But where Into the River really fell down for me was in the authenticity of the voice. I just never believed that I was inside the main character’s head – hearing his thoughts, feeling his feelings.
I didn’t have that problem with Bugs.
From the very first line, she grabbed me and drew me in. Normally, precocious young narrators drive me insane, but Bugs’ voice is utterly convincing, her experiences and perception of the world in every way believable. The connection between Bugs and Jez, a connection never fully realised or understood by either of them, is so powerful it left a clanging in my ears.
The depictions of the farm and the dialogue between Bugs, her Uncle and her Grandparents made me feel as though I had a place right there at the table with them. Likewise, the weight of expectation Bugs carries on her shoulders is so heavy I could have sworn I was carrying it too.
For the three days this book kept me engrossed I felt like I’d returned to high school; could almost feel the dread as I walked through the school gates, smell the lockers, hear the scrape of the chairs on the lino and the droning of disinterested teachers. It’s gritty and unflinching and combative and sarcastic and deep. It builds to a climax that kept me up late, turning pages into the wee hours.
It’s even scary. It rustled up the latent fear in me that I never realised I lived with during those high school years; the fear of getting caught, being found out, not knowing, being left behind, making the wrong choice.
As Bugs introduces us to her town, her school, her teachers, her mother and Grandparents, Jez and Stone Cold, we see the world as she sees it, but not necessarily as it is. The journey to discover what lies beneath, and to reconcile the choices her mother made with the choices she will have to make in the future, is what Bugs’ own dystopian novel must traverse.
Hereaka’s writing is beyond moving. It’s powerful, confident, fresh. It reminded me of the first time I ever read Witi Ihimaera, Albert Wendt, Patricia Grace, Keri Hulme – it’s like a veil is lifted, and I am finally reading the world as I see it, as I actually experience it.
I will be sorely disappointed if this book is not on the Awards list next year – it is every bit as important as any book I have read from New Zealand in years, and hope to see it receive the accolades and recognition that its talented writer surely deserves.