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Christchurch author Amy Head’s first novel Rotoroa is a masterclass in the minutely beautiful.
Following characters seeking ‘fresh starts’, Rotoroa weaves together three disparate narratives: naïve young Lorna, who, at 15, finds herself pregnant and turning to religion for comfort; Jim, an alcoholic husband and father who is sent to Rotoroa after failing to keep his drinking in check; and Katherine Morton, known more famously as the novelist and journalist Elsie K. Morton, who is contracted to write about the work of the Salvation Army on Rotoroa Island, the rehabilitation island for alcoholic men. Ensnared within the societal and religious binds that guide 1950s society, Lorna, Jim and Katherine each embark on an emotional (and sometimes physical) journey to define new lives for themselves while struggling within their typecast roles as daughter, alcoholic and ‘Lady Writer’.
Although it is explicitly a story about men, Rotoroa is implicitly a story about the steadfast women working behind the scenes – women who, were it not for pioneering journalists like Katherine Morton – may have been lost to the depths of history.
Spanning the years 1955–1959, the ease with which the social and historical realism bleed into the fictional narrative is a testament to the wealth of research that Head undertook in its writing. The non-fiction details are imparted through the narrative with a subtle and striking intelligence that is compelling in its pervasive emotional power.
The micro-level beauty of the prose is in its discreet attention to detail. In a Mansfield-esque manner, Head is master of the understated emotional epiphany. Interlacing not only three distinct narratives but also a non-linear time structure, each individual chapter reads like a self-contained short story. With sharp and often poignant beginning and end sentences, each chapter builds to the point of a subtle emotional revelation – so subtle, that every sentence demands to be read. Jim’s short, staccato-like chapters (which reach a pinnacle in a beautiful chapter where he goes fishing ‘at the sharp edge of the reef’) are balanced by Katherine’s longer mellow interludes as we journey with her on her final travel lecture throughout the USA and back home again – viewing 1950s New Zealand society from both the outside and in. Lorna’s story flows between and connects the two, at once enthralling and devastating in its unflinching emotional honesty.
Not to be confused with the geothermal city or lake of a similar name, Rotoroa Island lies to the east of Waiheke Island in the Hauraki Gulf. Opening with the statement ‘[w]here you lived was important’, the people and place of Rotoroa are intrinsically linked. ‘Both idyll and institution, from its clay-baked cliffs to the whitewashed stones’, the island of Rotoroa develops into a tempestuous yet striking character in its own right. Its isolation is reflected by the internal isolation of Lorna, Jim and Katherine, and we view the island variously with each switch of viewpoint – it is both ‘a nobody-cares island’ and a ‘sanctuary from earthly troubles’.
With a pressure that builds not to startle but to illuminate, Rotoroa crescendos to a depth of emotion rather than to a climactic height. It conceals more than it reveals, leaving the reader to unravel the unsaid, but the rewards are huge – the raw emotional power of Rotoroa lingers long after the novel is over. Highly recommended.
Reviewed by Rosalie Elliffe
by Amy Head
Published by VUP