Book Review: Passing Through, by Coral Atkinson

cv_passing_throughAvailable in selected bookstores nationwide.

Authors and publishers are approaching the centennial of World War One from every conceivable angle, from military histories to children’s activity books to poetry. Passing Through, by Coral Atkinson, is a work of romantic historical fiction set in the 1920s, self-published, and very much in the vein of the work of Jenny Pattrick OBE.

The first thing that struck me about Passing Through was the gorgeousness of its production. It has been beautifully designed by Keely O’Shannessy, whose work often crops up at the PANZ Book Design Awards, and produced and typeset by students of the Whitireia Publishing programme, of which I am proud to be a graduate. Passing Through is a paperback with a striking dust jacket, and I love that the front of the dust jacket and the front cover of the book have different, complementary designs. The heading font beautifully evokes the 1920s, and I particularly liked the elegant placement of the page numbers.

Passing Through is an enjoyable light read. Set in Christchurch in the 1920s, it follows the fortunes of Nan, a young woman who can talk to the dead; Ro, an ex-soldier turned con man who seeks to profit from Nan’s talent; Louisa, a war widow; and Harry, a returned serviceman suffering from shellshock. The characters are all likeable and interesting, and the narrative arc is satisfying in its comfortable predictability: the good end happily, the bad get their comeuppance, the lovers get together.

This is not to say that Passing Through is without weight: Atkinson is an assured storyteller and her accessible prose has pleasing touches of the lyrical. An experienced novelist, she is often praised for her sense of place − and this does feel very ye olde New Zealand, albeit in a heavily Pakeha-centric manner. It was interesting too to see a portrayal of Kiwi spirituality (Nan is a genuine medium) that is based neither in formal religion nor in Te Ao Maori, as is often the case in NZ fiction.

Within the context of our national reexamination of World War One and its devastating, ongoing effects, Passing Through does feel very rose-tinted. There is no mention of venereal disease or domestic violence, both of which were rife in the aftermath of the war. And although both of the returned servicemen characters carry scars (Ro has lost fingers and Harry has shell shock), the psychological implications of amputation are never explored, and post-traumatic stress disorder seems to almost be something you can get over if you just put your mind to it. But this is a function of the genre: Passing Through was never going to be a work of gritty realism.

Passing Through is notable for being at the upper, professional end of the self-publishing market. It can take its place with pride amongst its traditionally published peers in the historical fiction shelves of the bookshop: I am surprised that Random House, who have published Atkinson’s previous novels, didn’t pick this one up. And congratulations again to the students of the Whitireia Publishing programme, whose sterling editorial and production work has placed Passing Through at a clear professional standard.

Overall, I would recommend Passing Through to lovers of romance, light fiction and historical fiction, and to those who have enjoyed Atkinson’s previous work. Guaranteed to lend a touch of 1920s elegance to your bookshelf!

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage, Freelance writer and publisher

Passing Through
by Coral Atkinson
Published by Dancing Tuatara
ISBN 9780473262693