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The newest historical saga from renowned New Zealand author Deborah Challinor, From the Ashes tells a tale set in the 1950s – and of three families caught in a simultaneously exhilarating and frustrating decade of change.
From the Ashes is a standalone novel, but it is also a sequel-of-sorts to Challinor’s 2006 novel Fire, which depicted the Dunbar and Jones disaster (based on the 1947 Ballantynes’ Department Store fire in Christchurch – a disaster which killed 41 people).
Reappearing in From the Ashes, Allie and Sonny Manaia are now living in the metropolis of Auckland. Only two years on from the Dunbar and Jones fire, Allie is working on the Elizabeth Arden counter at the fashionable Smith and Caughey’s Department Store. As she tries to navigate a workplace that constantly reminds her of her friends who perished, Allie is left to struggle with her vivid nightmares and day-long ‘battle exhaustion’ (what we would now consider to be post-traumatic stress disorder) without help. As well as suffering their own personal tragedy in the recent loss of their baby daughter, Allie and Sonny are forced to face daily societal criticism for their mixed-race marriage.
One of the characters expressing disapproval is Kathleen Lawson, a woman with the wealth to shop at Smith and Caughey’s. A regular customer of Allie’s, it becomes clear that Kathleen is desperately lonely and bored. Trapped in an unhappy marriage with equally unhappy children – no matter how much she tries to present her ideal of a ‘perfect family’ – Kathleen is also trapped within her old-fashioned societal ideals and obsession with class, which are both quickly becoming redundant.
Spanning multiple generations and a myriad of characters, From the Ashes is an ambitious novel. It glimpses into the life of Allie’s elderly nan Rose, her hard-working mother Colleen Roberts, and her two younger sisters, Donna, who is training as a nurse, and Pauline, who is feeling lost as she tries to figure out what she wants from life. Sonny also has a younger sister – vibrant Polly who is leading a life on the lucrative underside of Auckland’s social scene.
From the Ashes tells of an age of social intolerance – especially in the city of Auckland, where signs stating ‘No Dogs, No Māoris’ were common.
From the Hawkes’ Bay, Kura Apanui and her friend Wiki Irwin know first-hand the trouble of discrimination. Living in squalid rental houses, not only do the families have trouble finding work that will accept them, but their large families are forced into cramped conditions – so different to the wide spaces and pleasant houses of the country. Kura’s cousin Ana has also been forced to moved from Hawkes’ Bay, and has challenges of her own – not only does she have to look after her own children, but she also has to look after her father-in-law, Jack, who suffers from a debilitating form of dementia. Focussing on the personal cost that caring can take, Challinor’s novel also explores the inhumane conditions of some 1950s hospitals.
In a decade that was especially difficult for women, From the Ashes is told solely through their eyes. Highlighting the importance of family and friendship, the novel also explores the serious discriminations of the time; the stigma attached to working women and unmarried mothers; the prejudices that led to people falling through the cracks created by society; and the burgeoning age of consumerism. With Smith and Caughey’s Department Store at the heart of the novel, there is a clear gap between those characters choosing to buy refrigerators and telephones, and those characters who can barely afford to buy food.
An easy read, From the Ashes is impeccable in its historical detail. Never over-explaining, historian and celebrated author Deborah Challinor creates a believable replica of 1950s Auckland and the people who may have inhabited it. While there are possibly too many characters – as some appear and then seemingly are lost to the story – the compelling readability makes up for the novel’s seemingly disparate nature. A long read, From the Ashes is a good holiday novel for those who enjoy historical sagas depicting a vibrant period of change.
Reviewed by Rosalie Elliffe
From the Ashes
by Deborah Challinor