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According to Catholic doctrine, when you are in purgatory, you are destined for heaven. But you require the purification of your spirit, so as to achieve the requisite holiness before paradise is reached. Unfortunately for John Finnigan, the 10 year-old murdered youth of this book, purgatory is also a place of suffering or torment. He can’t touch anything, and he finds himself alone once the bodies of his mother and two brothers, who initially share purgatory with him, are discovered.
Perhaps purgatory is being left alone, abandoned by those closest to your heart. Or maybe it’s eternal boredom, the ultimate lesson in find-something-to-do that mothers have mouthed from time immemorial. ‘It’s so boring out here, we’re all getting ratty … nothing to do but fight,’ declares John on the second page. His journey, whilst in this state, from utter boredom to appreciation of the smallest things − owls, cats, pohutakawa trees − is an interesting one.
Rosetta Allan uses first person, present tense ‘ghost narration’ to place us dead in the centre (pardon the pun) of John’s world. ‘No one knows we’re dead, except him,’ states John in the first 50 words of the novel, ‘We’re the dead Finnigans’. So of course, the next question is, who killed John and his family in 1865?
And so John’s story is alternated with James’. James Stack, whose life seems tough from the start. But not as tough as John’s − John is dead, after all, and James has the gift of life. James’ story is told in third person, past tense. This creates distance and gifts a traditional voice to the events of his life. Nothing really seems to go well for James, who follows his sister across the world, with her woollen, lace collar in his pocket. As the collar disintegrates, so do aspects of James’ life. But all the while we are reminded: he is alive, at least. It speaks to Allan’s skill that important moments, such as how John and James’ lives intersect, are subtlely rendered and not easily guessed. Well, I was pleased by this, anyway.
My over-arching fascination with this book came from the knowledge that these events actually occurred. Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries was the most recent book to remind me of the richness of our history and how untouched it has remained, in literature, until recently. Or, maybe it is only just starting to be explored in fiction well.
Living in Dunedin means hours can be spent perusing the settler exhibitions at Toitu (Otago Early Settlers’ Museum), Allan’s book is another reminder of the lives of characters in old photos that otherwise could remain historic artifacts of a time long-gone. Allan has explored her family history in a fictional way that reminds those of us from ‘other’ places (be it two or five generations back) that we were once settlers, that life was hard, and the world was a very different place.
Reviewed by Lara Liesbeth
by Rosetta Allan
Published by Penguin Books NZ