Monday, December 29, 2008

Terry Pratchett Nation

*ahem* (Sir) Terry Pratchett, Nation (2008)

In lieu of a post I'm working on on identities, in response to something at In the Middle, I'm posting something that is more thoughts than actual review. I don't know that there are many spoilers, but be warned, just in case.

I got this from X for Christmas, and obviously I started reading it pretty much as soon as I could. Nation is possibly the most thoughtful Terry Pratchett book I've read. What this means, I suppose, is that I think it's his most thoughtful book, full stop, since I've read all his books.

It's not a Discworld book, in case you didn't already know that. I've seen it labeled as YA, too, but if that's true, then it's yet another case of a YA book that is far more grown-up than most novels meant for grown-ups. It's also not as funny as most of his books or, if it is, it's a much gentler sort of humour. I've read short reviews that say it's about imperialism, but I don't know that it is. I mean, there is a British Empire, more or less. And there are Remarks made about Empires, and they are not always complimentary. But to say it's a critique of imperialism or, as I saw implied (IIRC) on Visual Bookshelf, a critique of US imperialism, is doing the book an injustice. There's no doubt that there is some of that. Over and over again, we see examples of how there is no equity in the world, and how smaller, less technologically developed nations are often subject to the whims of larger nations. But somehow, in Nation the message is not so much that the larger nations, or empires, have gained their strength by exploiting the smaller ones. We have to think about these things, but they are only part of the story.

The greater part of the story is about dealing with loss, and life, where life is just what happens when you're getting on with the more important things that have to be got through. Mau just gets through. And so, in her way, does Daphne. Pratchett often writes characters who are hurt, or damaged, but almost every character who winds up on Mau's island is actively suffering, and visibly damaged (although there are some characters who are just plain damaged in an icky kind of way). The ghosts are always present, and the people just get on the best they can, most of them by just shutting down the parts that can't deal with the pain. Mau loses everything and everyone he ever knew; Daphne's entire life is framed by the death of her mother and baby brother. But everything they do in fighting back the pain of their own losses helps to heal the losses of the other people who wash up on the island, and the ghosts who live there. It really is a story of fighting back against the darkness. And in the end, there is no clichéed reward, only sacrifice and duty.

It sounds grim, put that way. But really, it's one of the kindest and most hopeful books I've read in a long time. Mau and Daphne, and all of the (nice) people who come to the Island find what they are looking for because they make it for themselves. Mau refuses to accept a world where bad things happen, if he can keep them from happening, and the others follow him. What is especially lovely about the book is that it's never mawkish, and it's never trite. Even when good things happen because of the quirky twists of fate, or coincidence, or freaks of nature that can only happen in a Pratchett world, even when it is that exactly one in a million chance, it is always down to the people in the end. And Pratchett's people are people we know, or at least people we want to know, and want to be like.

ETA: As I dropped off to sleep, it occurred to me that there's a lot of Dunkirk and the Blitz in this book. That is, Mau is sort of like the ordinary guy that is part of the popular mythical memory of Dunkirk (did Michael Portillo do one of his 'Things We Forgot to Remember' shows on Dunkirk?). Daphne is the evacuee in a strange place, and the royal who stayed, all wrapped up on one, sort of. Or at least that's what my evening pint or so told me.


Steve Muhlberger said...

"It sounds grim, put that way. But really," this is about as good as it gets!

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Erm, I hope you meant that in a good way, Steve! Because really, I think it sort of is. But then I'm a sucker for stories where good people doing what's right, even when the world is so terribly wrong, end up making the world (or at least their corner of it) a better place.