Juno & Hannah Synopsis
1920, deep in the New Zealand bush, a settlement of Christian fundamentalists live a life of austerity and isolation. It is a place where there is little space for compassion, particularly for the women who can never rid themselves of Eve’s original sin. The elders rule over the women, children and young men, meting out punishments for transgressions as ordinary as self-reflection.
Sisters Juno and Hannah have grown up in the community, but when a stranger washes up on the river bank and Hannah goes to his aid, she finds herself accused of necromancy. The girls flee but are quickly forced to accept help. Hannah, unsure who is friend or foe, finds herself dependent upon and attracted to the man into whose lips she breathed life.
Juno and Hannah is a remarkable novella. The vivid New Zealand landscape reflects the journey of the sisters with its bounty of beauty and resources but also with its scars, wrought during the early days of colonisation. (Spinifex Press)
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Thank goodness for small independent publishers such a Spinifex Press, for without them unassuming little gems such as this novella Juno & Hannah by Beryl Fletcher would in all likelihood not see the light of day.
Fletcher reels her audience in with this stunning opening passage,
Some floods are silent, slow moving, tone deaf to the possibility of fugue and counterpoint. For weeks, the rain had held a polyphonic conversation on the galvanised iron roofs of the settlement. Sometimes the rain sang a lullaby, but when the wind came roaring up the valley pushing a wall of water before it, the roofs reverberated like a kettle drum.
I eagerly devoured her prose. Fletcher’s storytelling style is straight forward and efficient – we jump into the heart of the drama from the opening page – but the language she uses is lush and evocative, creating an intensity that quickly makes captives of her audience.
When the southerly blew itself out, fog crept up from the river and devoured all before it. Not one leafed moved, not one bird sang. One by one the trees melted away. The fog brought a terrible silence outside her prison that emulated the social death within.
I could feel that silence, I could feel that humidity — I could feel that fear and desperation.
Fletcher’s protagonist Hannah is a wonderful character. While naive to the ways of the world due to her limited experiences, she displays a maturity, resourcefulness and strength of character beyond her years in her quest to protect her younger sister Juno.
While at times referred to obliquely, perhaps representing society’s level of ignorance in the early 20th century, deep societal issues are explored in Juno & Hannah – particularly the role of women and the lack of care and rights afforded to people with neurological disorders.
Juno & Hannah is a beautifully written and moving novella. It serves as a powerful reminder that behaviours and attitudes the majority now find unspeakable were societal norms in alarmingly recent history. Beryl Fletcher’s message is clear – it is only due to the courage and personal sacrifice of individuals that society has progressed, and without strength and vigilance those hard won gains could so easily be lost.
BOOK RATING: The Story 4 / 5 ; The Writing 4.5 / 5
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Genre: Literature, Drama, Mystery, Historical
Author Information: Beryl Fletcher has published short stories, four novels and a volume of memoir The House at Karamu (2003). Her first novel The Word Burners won a regional (Pacific, South East Asia) Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book in 1992. Her novels take as their theme the re-writing of established power structures, particularly those of the patriarchy. She has been awarded two writers in residence in the USA (1994 and 2005) and two in New Zealand. Her work has been translated into German and Korean. In 2009 she was appointed the Pan-Commonwealth judge of the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize.
* My receiving this title free from Spinifex Press did not affect my ability to express my honest opinions in this book review.
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