Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Nation, by Terry Pratchett

Nation, by Terry Pratchett.  Harper, 2008.  367 pp.  978-0-06-143303-0.

... in which two young teens, the only survivors of a massive tsunami, attempt to rebuild their lives.

Nation is the story of two teenagers (both about 13 or 14 years old), who live in a world similar to our world in the late 1800s.  Mau is a boy who lives on a small island (analogous to a south Pacific island in our world); when the tsunami hits, he is alone on a different island going through a ritual to take him from boyhood to manhood.  Upon traveling back to his home island, he finds that the wave has destroyed his village and that he is the only one left.  Daphne is a girl traveling from London to live with her father, who is the governor of a British colony somewhere near Mau's island.  The tsunami wrecks her ship, leaving her alone with Mau on his island.  Despite being separated by language and culture, the two begin to work together to rebuild the island nation.  Gradually they are joined by other survivors from other islands.  As Mau takes up the leadership of this small group, he and Daphne are forced to confront the hidden secrets of the island, and to question the traditions and beliefs that govern their lives.

One thing I have always admired about Terry Pratchett is his ability to comment on a variety of social and cultural issues through his use of humor and satire.  His Discworld novels are hugely clever, addressing anything from capitalism and government to religion and death, all packaged in books that seem to be light comedies.  Nation moves away from the Discworld tradition, as it is a) very clearly set on an Earth-like planet that is shaped like a globe, and b) is not really a comedy (though it certainly has its funny parts).  However, in a lot of ways it's also classic Pratchett, as the book is basically a novel of ideas meant to make the reader think.

One of the book's strongest features is its strong characterization for the two protagonists.  The book alternates between being from Mau's perspective and Daphne's perspective.  Since Mau was raised in a village on a tiny island, and Daphne was raised as a lady in the highest of London society, the two perspectives offer very different things.  Both characters are nicely three-dimensional, and both are very sympathetic characters.  Daphne is, perhaps, a little bit more entertaining, as she frets over the proper way to serve tea in a shipwreck and as she worries about whether her grandmother would approve of her associating with a "savage" boy with no chaperone.  Mau is far more solemn, especially after he begins to hear the voices of his ancestors and his gods in his head, constantly berating him for doing things wrong.  He grows more serious as refugees begin to arrive, and he ends up being the more interesting of the two characters. 

The plot of the book is slow, but that works in its advantage.  It gives Pratchett a lot of space to explore the island culture's belief system and its traditions, so that the book doesn't come across as being flat and one-dimensional.  He explores a lot of interesting concepts, like the ability of tradition and belief to bring people together to work toward a common goal, and the ability of tradition and belief to hold people back from moving forward.  He also explores the ideas of cultural relativism and cultural imperialism, and the role of science in Western society vs the role of science in "tribal" cultures.  (Darwin and Newton come up multiple times in the book, and Richard Feynman and Carl Sagan are mentioned near the end)  Pratchett does this in a way that keeps the reader's attention, but without being really obvious or blunt.  The lightness of the book's prose and the humorous asides (a very amusing parrot and a lot of beer) go a long way towards preventing this book from becoming too heavy or self-important.  This book could easily have been a hundred pages longer, but since young adults are the target audience, I think it's the right length. 

Recommended reading for Pratchett fans and anyone with an interest in different cultural perspectives.  Since it's not as goofy as the Discworld books, it's also a good read for people who were a little bit put off by the wackiness of Pratchett's other work.

5/5 stars

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