‘Even if you wear a coat or use an umbrella it doesn’t stop you getting wet. This rain doesn’t just fall. It wraps itself around you, you breathe it in, the whole world becomes water, constant falling water. And we drag it inside with us. Small rivers run off our clothes and our shoes onto the floor as we sit in class…’
By page 20 of this YA novel I was crying with the recognition of the description that author Ella West has written of Westport. I am from Westport, my mum is from Westport, her mum’s mum was from Charleston. The West Coast often arises in New Zealand’s literary narrative as wild and full of wild people. No book that I have read previously has captured my coast. With rain, puddles, and the smell of drying wool – taking your chance and biking to the shops, just to get caught in it again on the way home. With miners, and farmers, railway men and school teachers. With unemployment due to economic depression. With regular people just living their lives in the place they ended up.
‘When it rains, the only difference between the days is the size of the drops and the time it takes for them to fall.’
15-year-old Annie has decided to cycle to her basketball match one day, when she is stopped by a stranger, who tells her to go home and stay inside because they are watching a house nearby. She does, and learns the person they are watching is their neighbour Pete, who – as it turns out – shot up the police station the evening before. The armed offenders’ squad is there from Greymouth, getting some pies and watching the house, when it suddenly explodes, shattering Annie’s window and throwing everybody to the ground.
Annie has a horse, Blue, who she feeds and rides regularly. Because the ground is so boggy, to minimise the mess Blue makes of the paddocks, she takes him to Fairdown Beach for his regular ride. This isn’t the only reason that she goes down there the first time we join her – Pete is missing and she knows that he stayed in their shed overnight after the explosion, so she is tracking him to make sure he is safe away. Pete and she have a history – he saved her once – so she owes him one. On the beach, she meets a boy. They race.
‘If anyone describes galloping to you a the same as flying, don’t let them fool you…For starters you’re connected to this animal that seems like nothing but fluid, moving muscle beneath you…One move from me could send us both crashing down.’
Horse-lovers are going to adore this book. Blue is a former racehorse, and the boy – Jack Robertson – rides Tassie, a barrel-racing horse, smaller and more powerful. It turns out he is the son of the man who is leading the murder investigation – because there has been a murder as well, of a local drug dealer.
The relationship between Annie and Jack is managed well. Annie isn’t a soppy girl – she’s quite pragmatic, figuring they are just having a bit of fun, thinking Jack has another girlfriend who is in the States competing in Rodeo. They aren’t full-on, there isn’t paragraphs dedicated to mooning over his eyes or smile, nor is there any dramatic sexual awakening. The driver of the plot is not only the relationship, but the murder, the outsiders and the small town’s need to protect their own.
Annie knows a bit more about Pete than most, and without realising she was also the only one to see the dead body float down the Orowaiti river. She thought it was a jacket. She and Jack also discover the body when it washes up on Fairdown Beach.
Westport is a small town. Writers who have never lived in one get these towns wrong constantly – Ella has lived there, and it shows. She knows the schools, the layout, the need for the townspeople to protect their own. She knows locals count. She knows the economic situation of the coast. ‘Brunner, Dobson, Strongman, Pike River – these are the ghosts that walk among us… But not only the dead, the coalmines themselves are now becoming ghosts.’ She has used all of this to build a plot that brings the coast to life.
The final chapters are fast-paced and thrilling. A run into the bush, guns, and desperate men. Will everyone come out alive?
Read this book if you know the Coast, if you want a read you can sink into, with a character who pulls her own weight and loves the place she lives. This is a great read, and while I’m not sure my background hasn’t influenced how much I loved it, I have been reading NZ-based YA critically for more than a decade now, and it certainly stands out. Well done, Ella, for getting it right. And thank you for writing about my town. I’m going to buy several copies of this and send them to my cousins.
Reviewed by Sarah Forster, who is also Editor of The Sapling.
by Ella West
Published by Allen & Unwin Australia