Some novels worth reading

Dieffenbach brought to life

By Ralph McAllister

Thom ConroyTHE NATURALIST by Thom Conroy (left) is a welcome addition to our knowledge of ourselves and our history.

This novel centres on an outsider, Dr Ernst Dieffenbach, who after prison terms in 1830’s Prussia accused, and probably guilty of youthful idealistic actions against the state, finds himself exiled to London which offers cold comfort to him and his aspirations.

He manages to gain a passage on one of the first of Wakefield’s ships to New Zealand and from then his troubles mount and mount as he tries to establish himself as a naturalist, explorer and a linguist.

The NaturalistHe meets Darwin, Heaphy and Te Rauparaha over the years, as he returns to New Zealand again and again. His main obstacle would seem to lie in the fact that he saw little to accept current thinking that the Maori were inferior, not even the noble savages with which some regarded them.

The novel is a treasure of painstaking research with fascinating meetings and encounters in and around Otaki and Kapiti Island, which come to life in Thom’s hands.

What is not quite so successful is the covering of his private life. Too often we gain only glimpses of the real man and the others in his life. The love interests seem contrived and lack the veracity of the landscapes which Thom portrays with loving detail.

Warmly recommended.

A novel on the dark side of Catholic Ireland

A History of LonelinessOn a completely different and less cheery note is A HISTORY OF LONELINESS by John Boyne. Some will know his young adult novel, THE BOY IN STRIPED PAJAMAS, his brilliant account of life living next door to a concentration camp.
His latest is the story of a priest in Ireland who, over the course of many years, fails to see what is happening around him. The insights into the blindness of faith are painstakingly examined as abuses are covered up by the Catholic Church within Ireland and beyond.
At times you want to scream out “Can’t you see Father” but Boyne holds a tight rein on his and our reactions.

It is a skilful and revelatory treatment of a subject which must be one of the most shameful of our times. That it is a novel only demonstrates the continuing power of this particular art form.

Alzheimer’s with a twist

Elizabeth is MissingEnding on a similarly depressing topic, Emma Healey in her first novel ELIZABETH IS MISSING looks at Maud and her battle with Alzheimer’s as she tries to discover what has happened to her friend Elizabeth.
The story evolves into a murder mystery with some neat twists, but it is Healey’s skill at helping us understand a little more of this blight on humanity that kept me reading.

Next something a bit more cheerful, with the latest from Hilary Mantel.

But that is for another day