writing || Wow: “Nation” by Terry Pratchett
Just finished reading “Nation” by Terry Pratchett! It’s a 5-star in my Goodreads! But before I start talking about it, here’s its Goodreads synopsis:
Alone on a desert island — everything and everyone he knows and loves has been washed away in a storm — Mau is the last surviving member of his nation. He’s completely alone — or so he thinks until he finds the ghost girl. She has no toes, wears strange lacy trousers like the grandfather bird, and gives him a stick that can make fire.
Daphne, sole survivor of the wreck of the Sweet Judy, almost immediately regrets trying to shoot the native boy. Thank goodness the powder was wet and the gun only produced a spark. She’s certain her father, distant cousin of the Royal family, will come and rescue her but it seems, for now, that all she has for company is the boy and the foul-mouthed ship’s parrot, until other survivors arrive to take refuge on the island. Together, Mau and Daphne discover some remarkable things (including how to milk a pig, and why spitting in beer is a good thing), and start to forge a new nation.
Encompassing themes of death and nationhood, Terry Pratchett’s new novel is, as can be expected, extremely funny, witty and wise. Mau’s ancestors have something to teach us all. Mau just wishes they would shut up about it and let him get on with saving everyone’s lives!
So, to get the basics out of the way: I loved this book. It was absolutely captivating (though it did fall short in some respects, which I’ll describe below), and it had so many gems of comedical as well as insightful passages sprinkled throughout. The characters were incredibly dynamic, too. Overall this is a complex piece of art that I regard with the same wondrous and mystified respect one might regard, say, the Egyptian pyramids. (And as you may or may not see, Pratchett’s writing style is already rubbing off on me, which is a way of confirming that yes, it was really good.)
The writing and the characters
Written from a third person omniscient point of view, I was first amazed at how Pratchett managed to make his story flow so well while also dealing with so many characters and their motivations. Really is the work of a talented genius. More than that though, Mau is definitely a new character crush of mine. He was the perfect hero, except with lots of insecurities and questions about the world, like why the gods allowed the wave to kill his entire Nation, and what his purpose was. Plus, the other main character, Daphne, would have been easily mistaken as a stuck-up rich spoiled princess had Pratchett not done such a masterful job at giving her another, scientific, curious side that rebelled against her posh grandmother’s wishes.
The whole time, Pratchett played with a comedic thread that he wove throughout the story. It was realistic, but it was also slightly satiric and cheesy – though it was clearly intended as such.
The one letdown
(CONTAINS SPOILERS – HIGHLIGHT TO READ AT YOUR OWN RISK)
Yes, it seems all fabulous things must have their own Achilles heel. “Nation” is about a boy and a girl stranded on an island. As more people come, Pratchett uses them to poke fun about Daphne and Mau’s differing genders, their differing cultures, and their differing roles in this (perhaps) 19th-century-like society. HOWEVER, Pratchett seems, perhaps because he wrote the book as a YA piece or perhaps he’s just that kind of guy, to have been avoiding any ACTUAL romance throughout the entire story. And the frustrating thing was that it was hinted at so often: in Daphne’s remarks about Mau’s muscles and his bravery, and Mau’s kindness and obvious deeper-than-just-familial love for Daphne. And although I was so excited for them to explore this aspect of their lives on the Nation as well, it never happened. The most we got was some hand-holding. Which, given the circumstances, didn’t seem that realistic either. Maybe I just wanted it so bad. But either way, I think it would have made the book better.
So I’m baffled at how he did this, but Pratchett basically touched upon every little thing that might be the topic of internal struggle when a group of people is stranded on an island. Here are some of the things that stood out to me, all of which are entirely applicable to our lives as well, and how we create our own identities in the strange new world we have all been born into.
And, if you like metaphors or are an English teacher (or both, because one often leads to another), perhaps the Nation represents our lives and those special individuals who touch them throughout. Or perhaps it represents something else. Or perhaps it’s just a story and interpreting it as anything else is pointless.
The nature of our relationships
In the beginning, Mau was alone. And his thoughts while saving Daphne from drowning when they first met was so TRUE. The only thing that stopped him from giving up when his lungs were screaming for air and drowning too was that he couldn’t let Daphne down. Mau’s new identity on this destroyed Nation was shaped by those around him, and I think this is such a sincere idea that we all can recognize in our own lives:
“Why do they want gods? We need people. That is what I believe. Without other people, we are nothing.”
Religion versus science
Pratchett started out with the notion that religion was something that was invented by people and thus no more substantial than a story. However, as the book progressed (and so did Mau, for whom this particular topic was a frequent burden), he started to actually include some supernatural elements that could be both magical or products of the imagination, depending on how you looked at them.
In the end, I think the general idea was that religion is a way of answering the questions we don’t know how to answer – which is often easier to handle than leaving them unanswered. Religion, thus, has its value. The book’s final message is about “belief in life”, however. At the end, a character says,
“Perhaps. I just believe. You know, in things generally. That works, too. Religion is not an exact science.”
Coming of Age
This book is obviously a coming of age book. Heck, it’s got people that “come of age”. It’s marketed as one, too. But what does this really mean?
As someone who is currently “coming of age” I’d say the most significant thing I’m doing lately is finding an identity for myself. There comes a point where you start to really build an identity that determines what you stand for and who you are. I think Mau and Daphne both had this experience on the island; though Mau was an obvious example because in the beginning it’s frequently mentioned that he “has no soul” and is like a little “hermit crab with no home”. In building the Nation, becoming chief, and saving others, he not only CREATES a home for himself, but he creates an identity.
The adaptability of humans
It was remarkable to watch the islanders survive on their own with so little. Having just finished “Man’s Search for Meaning”, which tells the story of a Holocaust survivor, I’ve come to the conclusion that we severely underestimate ourselves and what we really NEED to survive. We’re so used to learning things through books and instruction, but there are so many things that really are pre-programmed in us. And so many that, if we had to, we could discover ourselves, however impossible that might seem now. In fact, Viktor Frankl, in his above mentioned book, quotes Nietzche (I think that’s the right philosopher) in saying something like
“Man can bear almost any ‘how’, if only he has a ‘why’”.
I was especially enraptured whenever the groups worked on learning each others’ languages. It was a beautiful journey (that was also completely realistic) to follow something that had, at first, seemed impossible to accomplish.
Some of my favourite quotes:
‘Keenly religious, is he?’ said Mr Black as they headed towards the warmth of the main cabin.
‘Just a tad, sir, just a tad.’
‘In the case of Roberts, Captain, how big is a “tad”?’
Captain Samson grinned. ‘Oh, something about the size of Jerusalem
Her getting married still seemed to be the big topic of discussion in the Place. It was like being in a Jane Austen novel, but one with far less clothing.
GENERALLY BEAUTIFUL WRITING
Light died in the west. Night and tears took the Nation. The star of Water drifted among the clouds like a murderer softly leaving the scene of the crime.
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November 20, 2017 at 12:38 am
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May 28, 2020 at 6:01 pm
That was a perceptive review of what is probably my favourite Terry Pratchett novel. You sound like you’d also appreciate his Tiffany Aching series. Like many of the Discworld books, it also touches on the power of story, and how the stories we tell ourselves shape our reality.