The Strength of Eggshells, Kirsty Powell
Another in a long line of amazing family saga novels out of New Zealand, THE STRENGTH OF EGGSHELLS is the debut novel of Kirsty Powell.
A tale of the women of three generations of one family, this novel is the story of discovery, understanding and acceptance.
In the present day Kate is self-conscious about her height, and unsure of her background, and the circumstances of her birth mother Jane's residency in a mental hospital. Jane's story is told mostly by the Medical Officer there, Dr Bean, Jane having been badly burnt in a fire. He is a gentle man, and he and Jane use poetry to communicate, with Jane providing hints about her past life, although it's obvious she is holding back details from her daughter as well.
Then there is Kate's Grandmother Meredith. An incomer to a remote valley surrounding the Whanganui River post the First World War, in a soldier settler area that eventually was deserted, and allowed to return mostly to its original splendour. Meredith has a loveless marriage with a man who turned to whisky, and ends up living in a Maori hut behind the farm house, contributing little to the running of the farm. Meredith, however, had turned her hand to everything, she was a strong, determined, calm woman of infinite capacity and longing. You can't hope but think that Kate will discover a connection with her Grandmother, and find some of that strength and capability is somehow genetic.
Kate is looking backwards to the women in her family at a time of need in her own life, discovering a book of Jane's poetry kept by Dr Bean. The overall story is told in a series of chapters narrated by each of these characters. It's a journey of discovery that the reader is taken on at the same time as Kate, which sometimes can be a bit cliched or corny, but in THE STRENGTH OF EGGSHELLS is anything but. The story of women's lives and their strength and commitment to the development of places and families seems to be all too frequently missing from the history of our places, and this novel takes us into interesting territory with the connection between three female generations. The strong, resilient determined but sad Grandmother; the damaged and struggling Mother, and now Kate - the inheritor of much potential and a background that's unclear and needs to be swept into the open to allow her to take advantage of the future. It also doesn't flinch from the violence and sexism of the past, as well as non-gratuitous depictions of rape and murder.
It's an elegant reminder of the rural roots of so many families. Not just that we had somebody who came from the Bush, but that the bush provided those families with a start, and the chance to create strong connections to the place. It reminded this reader yet again that we owe understanding and respect to people who have a much longer connection to the land and know that it's part of their identity and their existence.
New Zealand literary fiction with a part historical setting.
Kate sets out on a motorbike to find her past. Why does her mother Jane only communicate through poetry? What became of her grandmother Meredith who travelled up the Whanganui River on a paddle steamer to marry a returned soldier in an ill-fated valley beyond the Bridge to Nowhere? And what should Kate do about her own two pointed love triangle.
THE STRENGTH OF EGGSHELLS explores the lives of strong rural New Zealanders, set against the fragile isolation of a farm upbringing, two world wars and a landscape that is inevitably slipping beyond reach.