Author: Terry Pratchett
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Publisher: Harper Collins/Corgi
Publication Date: 2008
Paperback: 432 Pages
Alone on a desert island — everything and everyone he knows and loves has been washed away in a storm — Mau is the last surviving member of his nation. He’s completely alone — or so he thinks until he finds the ghost girl. She has no toes, wears strange lacy trousers like the grandfather bird, and gives him a stick that can make fire.
Daphne, sole survivor of the wreck of the Sweet Judy, almost immediately regrets trying to shoot the native boy. Thank goodness the powder was wet and the gun only produced a spark. She’s certain her father, distant cousin of the Royal family, will come and rescue her but it seems, for now, that all she has for company is the boy and the foul-mouthed ship’s parrot, until other survivors arrive to take refuge on the island. Together, Mau and Daphne discover some remarkable things (including how to milk a pig, and why spitting in beer is a good thing), and start to forge a new nation.
Encompassing themes of death and nationhood, Terry Pratchett’s new novel is, as can be expected, extremely funny, witty and wise. Mau’s ancestors have something to teach us all. Mau just wishes they would shut up about it and let him get on with saving everyone’s lives!
Stand alone or series: Stand alone
How did I get this book: Bought
Format (e- or p-): Print
Why did I read this book: I have been slowly but surely becoming a huge fan of Terry Pratchett. After reading and loving The Wee Free Men, I asked for more recommendations. Nation was one of the books brought up as book that was also extremely political. I had to check it out. I read it last week, when I was on holidays because I wanted a SURE thing after recent reads were so disappointing.
I was forewarned by friends and readers. I have read – and loved – a couple of other books by the author. So it’s not like I didn’t know the odds this would be good but this book? It blew my mind away. In its epilogue, Terry Pratchett says:
Thinking. This book contains some.
And that’s true: this is one of the most think-y books I have ever read. I loved it with every fibre of my being.
Nation is a book of ideas. Its main theme, that of construction and creation: the construction of a home, of a family, of rules, tradition and religion. It is about those building blocks of civilisation itself and of individuals, in a way that is both extremely rational and enormously emotional. Writing that line just now makes me realise how weird that might sound to those who haven’t read the book. Above all it makes me think about how hard it is to pull something like this off and to keep a balance between what drives a story and the story itself without making a book about ideas, a book that is solely about ideas. If that makes any sense at all – I am finding it extremely hard to write this review because how do you describe perfection? Especially when it’s so affecting?
Nation is a book about creation.
It starts with the destruction of everything one of its main characters knows.
There is a small island in the Great Southern Pelagic Ocean in a world very much like ours (but not quite) where young boys go through a ceremony where they shed their boy-souls to gain their man-souls. Mau is on the Boy’s Island and is about to cross over to the main island to become a man when the big wave comes. He survives it but when he goes ashore to his home, to the Nation, he discovers everything he knows and everyone he loves has been washed away. His first action is to build a spear: “Without fire and a spear, you could never hope to be a man, wasn’t that right?”.
But soulless Mau is all alone and nobody answers him.
All alone that is, but for Daphne, a young girl who was aboard the Sweet Judy ship, whose wrecked remains are now part of the Nation. They are different because their background, their language, their traditions are dissimilar. They are equals because they share this tragedy and because they are both thinkers. Together, they work to survive and to create a home for those who slowly start to come to the Nation in search of a haven after unspeakable tragedy.
First comes an old man, a priest who wants things to be kept as they always were and whose unquestioned belief in their Gods remains unshaken. With him, a young sickly woman with a newborn baby who is barely moving and can hardly feed. Everybody’s immediate response is to fall back into the roles they have always known: if the mother cannot feed her baby, the only one who can help is of course, the other female, Daphne. Except Daphne – a young girl raised by a grandmother who believes young ladies should be Proper – doesn’t even know how babies are made. Mau does what must be done in order to keep the baby alive. Hilarity ensues when he milks a wild pig but also: enlightenment for both Daphne and Mau. Women are not born knowing how to care for babies. Things that appear deep seated gender-led knowledge are not. A man’s soul is not created magically because one crosses from one island to another.
So, first comes destruction. Then, deconstruction: little by little, both characters observe this new world and question the old one in search of answers. It is a kind of stripping down to one’s very core in order to understand. But it is a stripping down without letting go of the past completely because the rules are there. So Mau is walking around the island and he hears the Grandfathers’ voices telling him what to do, to follow their traditions, not question their religion, otherwise there is no order. As much as Daphne abhors her grandmother’s voice inside her head telling her to be Quiet and Proper, she keeps listening to it non-stop. Motivation counts too and Mau is angry. He is angry at the Gods and that leads him to question their very existence. Daphne is not moved by religion at all but by Science. There is sympathy and compassion toward other characters and those find their own balance and their own way of surviving.
In a way, a wave came but they are not completely marooned because they have Tradition. But does Tradition serve them at this time of need or is that now an impediment? How important is it to keep going as it “has always been”? Or is this yet another misconception about the world? Slowly: the understanding that those are internalised voices and that questioning is good. To understand the HOW is all the more important: history becomes religion becomes tradition becomes internal rules living inside one’s head.
Then, forging and building. Mau and Daphne build themselves up and their thoughts are the roots on which they build a new Nation. And they do that by means of Scientific Method.
And that is accomplished in a story that is moving, sad, hopeful and funny. Mau and Daphne have hilarious misunderstandings before they lean to communicate. Their community is built and deep connections are formed between people. A new Nation is born out of the old and people still have parties, drink beer, laugh, love, pray and look at the sky.
Also: parallel universes.
I don’t know how my reading of this particular book has been affected by the fact that I am new to Terry Pratchett’s main oeuvre but this to me, was simply wonderful. Interestingly enough, limited as my Terry Pratchett experience might be, I found Nation to be slightly different in tone (not as funny) to the other books I have read from the author but exactly the same in how smart it is.
Nation is a rich and intricate novel. Yes ,it does have an obvious message about the power and importance of thinking, but this never overwhelms the characters or the story. I understood this very well when I started crying when the book was over. Plus, the epilogue is a wonderful gift from an author who truly understands his readers.
This book spoke to me in a deeply personal level and I can’t recommend it enough.
“That’s what the gods are! An answer that will do! Because there’s food to be caught and babies to be born and life to be lived and so there is no time for big, complicated, and worrying answers! Please give us a simple answer, so that we don’t have to think, because if we think, we might find answers that don’t fit the way we want the world to be.”
“They didn’t know why these things were funny. Sometimes you laugh because you’ve got no more room for crying. Sometimes you laugh because table manners on a beach are funny. And sometimes you laugh because you’re alive, when you really shouldn’t be.”
Rating: 10 – Fantastic
Reading Next: Doll Bones by Holly Black
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