“Nation” by Terry Pratchett

I originally reviewed this book in January 2012. I rewrote this review in May 2014.


I’ve read a lot of Terry Pratchett books. I think I’ve probably read more books by Terry Pratchett than I’ve read by any other author, mostly because he’s written so many. Though I own only a handful of the Discworld novels, I’ve been frequenting the “P” shelf of the SFF section in the library since I was about thirteen, so I’ve worked my way through them. Mostly in the wrong order.

Nation, however, was one of the only non-Discworld books I’ve read by Terry Pratchett — the only other exception would be Good Omens, co-written with Neil Gaiman. I passed it by several times in the library: without the Discworld elements, it didn’t appeal. Eventually, lost for other things to choose, I picked it up.

At first, I wasn’t convinced. It seemed a bit too fairytale-esque for my liking, but I persevered, because I’m a fan of Pratchett’s style and I felt sure he’d pull it out of the bag. As I got further into the book, it became apparent that it contained thinking.

It’s a children’s book — or rather, I found it in the Teens section of the library. I suppose it has all the elements of a slightly romantic adventure story: a boy and a girl are stranded on a desert island together. At first, they can’t speak each other’s languages, but as they develop the ability to communicate they also develop affection, so on and so forth.

But it’s also one of the most philosophical books I’d read in a long time. Not in a weird New Age way, nor in an overly dense theoretical way — in an honest and human way.

The book opens with Mau travelling back from the “boys’ island” in order to become a man. However, a tidal waves destroys the Nation. His people are dead, his home has been destroyed, and Mau is the only one left. Or he would be, if a British boat hadn’t been wrecked there too.

Despite many misunderstandings, he manages to befriend the girl he finds there, who calls herself Daphne (she’d always liked the name). Travellers see the smoke of their fire and come to the island, assuming that the Nation has survived. They ask for the chief, but there is no chief. Mau’s the only remnant of his people.

This book questions traditions and stories and ancestry. Should Mau continue with the old rituals that his people used to follow? It didn’t seem to do them any good, but giving them up might make things worse. Daphne doesn’t believe what he believes — she follows a different religion and she wears clothes — but when it comes down to it, they’re not all that different. So which one of them is right?

It’s also a book that explores loss and grief. Mau has lost everything he ever knew, and Daphne is stranded far away from home and her father. Her mother died in childbirth when Daphne was nine years old. Both of the main characters are angry and wondering why, and both of them think that the other doesn’t understand —

“You didn’t see the little coffin next to the big one!” she screamed. “You don’t know what it was like!”

And it came to her like a blow. He does. I watched him bury all those people in the sea. He knows.

It’s a book that deals in universal truths and emotions. I saw Mau and Daphne in my own thoughts and feelings, expressed in a way I couldn’t manage myself. It’s a good writer who can sum up your exact feelings when you can’t, and a good character that feels them with the same depth and intensity.

I lost my grandma just a week or two before reading this book in early 2012 (when this review was first written), and I wonder whether this made me sympathise with Mau and Daphne in a way I wouldn’t otherwise have done. I think it might have helped, but they were sympathetic, realistic characters in their own right, and anybody who could read it without being the slightest bit affected by them has a cold heart.

I’ve failed to convey something important in this review: this book is funny. Some reviewers say it’s nothing like Pratchett’s usual fare, and maybe it’s more subtle humour, but it’s full of observations that are bitingly accurate, and prompted me to laugh out loud (particularly those about cricket).

It’s thought-provoking: don’t read it unless you’re prepared to think about life, the universe and everything. Don’t read it unless you’re prepared to turn the world upside down and accept that some things are how they are, but some things aren’t.

It’s sad, because everything that starts has to end, and everyone that travels needs somebody to go with them.

And there’s something tremendously honest and real about it, because only real life could end in quite the way that this book ended.

In the future I intend to establish a system of star ratings on this blog, but this review is old, and I haven’t reread the book, so I don’t feel I can accurately or honestly give it a rating. It would be a high one, though.


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