An epic journey both literal and metaphorical, Eleanor Bassett
30 March , 2021
Award-winning New Zealand author Diana Noonan uses her latest novel to touch delicately and with grace on the sensitive topics of fragility in families, perfection, mental health, disability, and gender and sexual identity. What a list! All these could individually be the main theme for the novel, but are woven together into a not-too-preachy or educational, but still very ‘woke’, book!
Noonan uses the storyline to ensure that the character with a physical disability is not unintentionally ‘othered’ or negatively spotlighted; in any misguided attempt to educate or normalise the idea of disability in the world around us. Instead, the physical limitations of the physically disabled character take a back seat to the mental health struggles and limitations of the main characters. It could be argued though that this is simply ‘othering’ a different form of limitation. Similarly to Noonan’s approach to writing about a physical disability, her impactful writing on self-harm has more nuance and empathy than many pop culture TV shows and writings on the topic. The binary of mental and physical issues in the characters relationships can encourage a reader to view it as an analogy; is Noonan suggesting that mental illness can be a disability, limitation or ‘invisible illness’, just as much or more so than a physical ailment?
Katie is a half Kiwi, half Greek teenager who travels from Wellington to Greece with her family to visit a dying relative she has never met, only written to. Throughout the literal journey to and through Greece, Katie goes through a metaphorical journey; modern-day half Greek, half Kiwi version of The Odyssey, one might say! She is removed from her everyday life for a little while and can view her family in a new light, and discover their hidden or unspoken truth. In Greece, Katie struggles, but finds her way with unlikely assistance (as well as providing unlikely assistance).
Noonan’s own life experience shaped this storyline, but not in a conventional way; she spends half her life in Greece, and when she’s not in Greece she’s seeking out a more ‘traditional lifestyle.’ Katie, the main character, spends a lot of time in the book lamenting and reflecting on the lack of a traditional family structure and home she has compared to the people around her. This idea of a traditional family structure and what that means interweaves with Noonan’s use of Greek and Kiwi customs. Where we get those traditions from and how they change depends on the culture; “…the koro and the cross” (referring to two necklaces worn by Katie in the beginning). When Katie arrives in Greece, she takes one of the pendants off.
In the last chapter, Katie comments to her therapist about “…her epic”; a subtle, but appreciated, nod from the author about the influence ancient Classical culture had on the Western world; on our arts, stories, culture and language. Towards the end, Katie vocalises that perfection, in any type of relationship (familial, generational, and romantic) and in mental health, doesn’t exist. This is a cultural statement Noonan makes; there is, and possibly never was, a consistent, ‘traditional’, or ‘perfect’ family or relationship structure. Despite the character introspection and growth around the ideal of ‘perfection,’ the novel does have a feature characteristic of books by children’s authors; the happy ending, or an ending that ends ‘well.’ Katie’s own health struggles are in control and her relationships are intact or improving, and there is significant character development in all the characters with a notable positive journey arc.
This is linguistically and structurally an easy read, and a welcome read for those readers looking for more naturally incorporated ‘harder’ topics in Young Adult books. Plus, who doesn’t dream of jetting from windy Wellington to sunny Greece now and again?!
Eleanor Bassett is 18 and lives in Upper Hutt. When she isn’t attempting to be Dr Dolittle or the next Pippa Funnell or the next Molly Huddle; she pores over and philosophises all forms of writings!