Rebecca Mackenzie’s debut novel, In a Land of Paper Gods, is surely set to delight readers this spring, as we’re treated to an often startling—and decidedly perceptive—look at one child’s journey into a strange world that is far from home.
Here we see Henrietta—or: Etta to her wild group of girl-friends and fellow classmates—as she spends her days amongst Christian missionaries, at a school in amongst the mountains. Her life is that of a daughter of parents who spread the word of God, as China sits on the brink of war, and all that implies.
Etta is thrust into a world where she is influenced by two separate cultures, and it is fascinating to see how Mackenzie picks through these ambiguities and conflicts, as the tension of the impending war ticks menacingly in the background.
The steadily approaching Japanese soldiers spent the most part of the novel in the background—conspicuous by their absence—before becoming increasingly more important figures in these girls’ lives. Mackenzie writes with a natural touch, contrasting the beauty with the impending war so subtly that you sometimes have to pause for breath before you realise what she’s done. She captures the spiritual world of China and forests, as mountains and waterfalls seem to come alive, leaping off the pages.
Mackenzie’s cast of characters are delightfully strange and innocent, often laugh-out-loud funny. Sarah, Isobel, Fiona, Kathryn, Edith, Flo, Hilary—and let’s not forget Big Bum Eileen—will form the weird and wonderful Prophetess Club.
At first their predictions seem just a little too ridiculous, hard to take seriously, but it’s quickly understood that this is a child’s way of dealing with the circumstances of war: of allowing themselves to disappear, Narnia-esque, away from reality and all that comes with it, in the soon to be war-torn Chinese mountains.
In the latter stages of In a Land of Paper Gods, inevitably the war catches up, as it has threatened to do in patches throughout its pages. At times Mackenzie’s writing can be brutal—but always hauntingly beautiful—as we are swept forward to an emotionally draining denoument that will have the most hardened of hearts aflutter.
This is a book that teems with beautiful images and descriptions—on love, friendship, and mostly: what it means to be human, regardless of your upbringing or culture. Mackenzie has crafted a debut novel that blends the historical with the personal, and she has done so with ease. I for one look forward to the next adventures that surely wait in future pages.
In a Land of Paper Gods by Rebecca Mackenzie is available online and in all good bookstores, January 28.