Evocative work imbued with sense of place

In The Earth Cries Out, author Bonnie Etherington conveys a deep personal knowledge of Papua New Guinea. 

THE EARTH CRIES OUT
Bonnie Etherington
Penguin Random House NZ

By JESSIE NEILSON

With an exclamatory title and striking cover, The Earth Cries Out is a bold and thoroughly informed work by first-time novelist Bonnie Etherington.

Nelson-born, she spent her formative years with her family in West Papua, and her passion and concern for this culture form the raw material here.

Young Ruth tells the story, her account a type of healing. It begins in Nelson, where she lives with her divorce-teetering parents and her sister Julia. After a terrible accident and Julia's slow death, the remnants of the family pledge to start anew in a place devoid of memories.

They settle in Papua, where father Isaac will oversee the building of a rural hospital, and mother Miriam will take on other voluntary projects, such as avocado-growing and rabbit-breeding.

By contributing productively to this society they hope it will, to some degree, erase their ever-present guilt over losing Julia. However, all that remains are fragile connections and a tentative peace, and the smiles and tenderness "were all just threads that made up the silk screen that kept everything together''.

Ruth tries to keep out of the way. She has a new friend, Susumina, a common name for local orphaned girls. She finds a land pulsing with history and upheaval, natural and political.

As the grown narrator, looking back, Ruth writes that from long in the past, when the Indonesian army first came, the villagers had "memories sunk inside them, in between the ulcers in their stomachs and the malaria in their livers''.

Immersed in village life, she witnesses customs and violations she will never forget: the treatment of animals, particularly those soon destined for consumption, lingers, as do the AK-47-touting local police, who take certain liberties.

Elderly people with stubs for fingers are not an unusual sight in a culture where joints have been sacrificed for dead family members. Her parents continue to bicker. Ruth screams all her anger into a peanut butter jar as her form of release against a world that is caving in on her.

Author Etherington, in her mid-20s, conveys her deep personal knowledge of Papua, and integrates with this particular narrative short vignettes related to the natural landscape of Papua and human interaction with it.

Such snapshots focus on local plants, such as breadfruit, betel nut, pandanus or purple shallots, or on folklore, or witch-killing.

Each piece is given a date and relevance, and this jumping through time echoes the movement of this place, as well as the history winding through it.

The Earth Cries Out is packed with content, and on a personal and broader level speaks of grief and loss.

This is a substantial and evocative work that carries the voice of a young writer and first-time novelist, but with varied work behind her already, it will be interesting to see what her future directions might be.

Jessie Neilson is a University of Otago library assistant.

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