Mau is a boy who has just embarked upon his island nation's manhood ceremony: he is dropped off on a nearby island and must make his way back home by himself - surviving on his own, building a boat to return - and when he does, he will be a man. However, on his way back an enormous tidal wave sweeps through the area. Mau survives, but he find himself his nation's sole survivor. Neither boy nor man, he feels like a hermit crab who is out searching for his new shell but cannot find it.
Meanwhile a boat from an alternate version of 19th-century England is swept onto the island by the tidal wave. Its sole survivors are an upper-class girl who calls herself Daphne and a foul-mouthed parrot. Luckily Daphne is not the sort to swoon at inopportune moments. She is an intelligent girl whose father has nurtured that intelligence, taking her to lectures at the Royal Society. Although neither speaks the other's language, she and Mau form an alliance that becomes a true friendship as they work to survive together after each has suffered unspeakable loss.
Mau is furious with the gods for allowing such a catastrophe to happen. Daphne is worried she'll never see her father again. Each has questions, and questions that lead to more questions - and somehow, as they grow to know each other and see the world through the other's eyes, they gain a new perspective on things, even though it becomes apparent that there are no simple answers. There is, as the god of death tells Mau, what happens and what does not happen. "Does not happen" become Mau's mantra as he struggles to help the survivors who show up, half drowned, wounded and malnourished, on the shores of his island.
As with all of Pratchett's novels, Nation is wonderfully written. While the subject matter is difficult (at times gut-wrenching), the story is leavened by some wonderful laugh-out-loud moments as well. One of my favorites is when Daphne finds herself face-to-face with a group of cannibals, and she manages to impress them with her courage and quick thinking.
"You are very clever," said the old man shyly. "I would like to eat your brains, one day."
For some reason the books of etiquette that Daphne's grandmother had forced on her didn't quite deal with this. Of course silly people would say to babies, "You're so sweet I could gobble you all up!" but that sort of nonsense seemed less funny when it was said by a man in war paint who owned more than one skull. Daphne, cursed with good manners, settled for "It's very kind of you to say so."
I adored this book. It is difficult to articulate the skillful manner in which Pratchett weaves his narrative, infusing it with humor and empathy, creating characters as three-dimensional as real people (more, actually, than some I know!), and spinning a tale that had me dreading the moment it would end. Because it ends, as all great stories do, much too soon. As the book drew toward the final chapters, I felt as though I had received the most delightful gift. I know already that I will be picking this book up again and again - what an amazing book to be my first read of 2009. While it is marketed as a young adult novel, it has definite appeal to adults as well. I highly recommend this novel - it is funny, moving, gripping, and thought provoking. And the epilogue? It rocks!
Nation by Terry Pratchett (HarperCollins, 2008)
Also reviewed at:
Bookgeeks: "Being Pratchett, it is of course laugh-out-loud funny in very many places, but it’s also moving without being mawkish, and to balance those two elements in the same book, for a younger audience, is a huge achievement."
Things Mean a Lot: "In the past few years I’ve read many books that I loved, but I hadn’t been this awed in a long time. I hadn’t found something that resonated this deeply with me in a long time. So much of what I think and feel and believe is in this book."
Valentina's Room: "Although this book was more serious and complex than I expected, being Terry Pratchett's, it was full of truly hilarious moments."