Book review: Red Rocks by Rachael King

cv_red_rocksThis book is in bookshops now and is a finalist in the New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards.

It takes quite a lot of trust and faith in your reader to mix a thoroughly ancient legend, in this case about mythical selkies, with a modern of coming of age story. Half of the main characters in this book by Rachael King are in fact seals; seals that, in keeping with Scottish legend, turn into beautiful young women when they cast their skins aside to walk on land. The mythical selkies. The other characters are one half of a modern day separated family trying to get on with life as best they can. It also takes a good storyteller to pull it off.

Surprisingly perhaps, I found myself suspending disbelief; and I became entranced by this book and its characters. And it happened so subtly that I didn’t even notice. The main character Jake is a little lost – his parents are divorced, his mother remarried with a new baby. He visits his father who is living a nomadic writer’s existence on the Wellington coast. But the school holidays are never much fun without friends, so the adventurous Jake takes off to explore the rocks of the Wellington coastline. He makes friends with another equally lonely young girl and an old man and attracts the interest of some local bullies. But it is when he finds an abandoned seal skin which he hauls home that the trouble really begins. The taking of the skin is the key turning point in this book as it unravels the story and importantly prevents its rightful owner from going to back to the sea.

Hindsight is a great thing. And of course, I can tell you now that I knew all along which characters were human and which were seals, but what’s clever is the way this realisation subtly unfolds. There is not a moment of mass revelation, you just suddenly begin to understand who the characters are and how they inter-relate and it feels natural. I guess that’s why it easy to believe in all of the characters in this book; they just work.

Interestingly, I just handed the book to my eleven year old saying it was great and I think you will like it. He read the back (which mentions seal skins but nothing about selkies) and he asked “What’s up with selkies? This is the third book this year that’s had slekies in it.”

Really? I had no idea. Apparently, his teacher has been reading these books to them in class.

“What time period have they been set in?” I asked.
“Ancient of course” was his reply. “And all in Scotland.”
“What about one set in Wellington in modern times. Could that work?”
“Hmm, maybe.”

But there is no maybe about it. This book works and it’s a gripping page-turning tale.

The book should appeal to any reader (young or old) who is able to suspend reality briefly, but after all isn’t that what reading is all about?

Reviewed by Gillian Torckler

Red Rocks
by Rachael King
Published by Random House
ISBN 9781869799144 (paperback)
ISBN 9781869799151 (e-book)

Rachael King has a secret and she’s ready to confess…

I have a confession to make. I took another person’s words and I put them into my book without attribution. So far nobody has called me out on it, not even my editor, who is renowned for having an eagle eye in such matters.

These are the words that I paraphrased: I baited my line, watched it sink, and waited with exquisite anticipation for the pecking of mullet, the sucking of trevally, or – best of all – the sudden pull of kahawai or kingfish.

Ring a bell? These words sit above Wellington harbour, as part of the Wellington Writer’s Walk, and they were written by my father, the late Michael King.

Let me explain myself.

There’s a picture of me, aged about seven I guess, proudly holding up two (admittedly rather small) kahawai by the gills, with a big snaggle-toothed grin on my face, while my brother serenely gazes at the camera with a rope swing between his legs, about to leap off into the abyss. I look at that photo now, with our home-knitted jerseys and flared jeans, and think that it sums up a pretty idyllic New Zealand 1970s childhood experience: bare feet in winter; haphazard haircutting practices; homemade, death-defying swings on macrocarpa trees; and nature, lots of nature.


The photo was taken at Paremata, near Welington, where Dad lived for a time in a two-bedroom rented cottage, with a steep track down to the beach. Jonathan and I slept in bunk beds in the bedroom; Dad slept in a double bed in the living room, and used the other bedroom to write in. It was while living there that my dad taught me how to row a boat, and to fish. He taught me not to reel my line in every time I got a bite, but to wait patiently until the fish was truly hooked, when the rod would dance in my hand. He taught me how to identify varieties of fish. The silver ones were yellow-eyed mullet. If they had yellow spots they were kahawai; but not too many spots or they were spotties, which also had jagged dorsal fins and were inedible. We threw those ones back. If the fish had ridges along the tail so its cross-section was diamond-shaped: trevally.

When it came time to write my first children’s book, how could I not suffuse it with all of those experiences? They were so much a part of my growing up that I couldn’t write what I knew without involving the sea.

And so Jake in Red Rocks goes and stays with his writer father by the sea and his father takes him out fishing. And as I wrote that scene I wanted to put a part of my father in it, and so I took his words, and I gave them to Jake:

“His hands were cold as they gripped the rod, but he felt such exquisite anticipation, it didn’t matter. What would find his bait? Would he feel the sudden pull of kahawai? Or the pecking of a mullet?”

I put them in there not because I couldn’t think of my own words to use, but because my dad isn’t around to read my book and this is how I made up for that fact. It was my little secret; my homage to the man who had given me the experiences I was now giving to my characters. And happily, as his literary executor, I was able to give myself permission to use those words.

There’s another picture of me. I’m sitting next to Dad’s quote on the Wellington Writer’s Walk, not long after it was installed. It’s late 2006 and I’ve got my first baby son in a sling and I’m smiling at my aunt Gerri, Dad’s sister, who is taking the picture. Soon after this picture was taken, I walked that baby around the South Coast of Wellington, and an idea came to me about a boy finding a sealskin in a cave, taking it home, and hiding it under his bed. I like to think that in this photo, that story is a twinkle in my eye, and that the quote is already working its way in there.

rachael-king-at-seatBy Rachael King, author of Red Rocks.

Red Rocks is a finalist in the New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards.

Red Rocks
by Rachael King
Published by Random House
ISBN 9781869799144