The Nature of Ash – Mandy Hagar

The Nature of Ash

Go to your bosom; Knock there, and ask/your heart what it doth know. Measure for Measure – William Shakespeare. (Epigraph to ‘The Nature of Ash’)

‘It’s so bloody unfair.  If those sabre-rattling douches shut the country down, we’ll be sent home.  And once you drop out of uni, it’s damn near impossible to get back in. So much for my grand plans of doing good: there’s no way I can be a speech and language specialist if I don’t complete the full three years.  With nearly half the working population unemployed already, and all the decent jobs reserved for those who have the right contacts – the stinking rich – chances are we’ll end up slaving in some sweat shop – or, worse, signed up against our wills to fight another no-win war.  But, worst of all, back to a life as boring and predictable – and hard – as it was before.’

This is ‘the nature of Ash’ at the beginning of this action-packed, dystopian, political thriller.  As well as representing the journey of Ash from self-absorbed teenager, revelling in the boozed life of a uni hostel, to Ash – political activist, hero and provider for all – (hmmm…) the title is resonant, because ‘ash’ brings to mind so many literary allusions that is has real depth as a metaphor.

This novel is set in an unspecified future in Wellington and Whanganui.  While we are not ever directly told it is the future, we make that assumption because of the referral to relatively new buildings (Te Papa and the Cake Tin – Westpac Stadium Wellington) as being the ‘old’ museum and the ‘old’ stadium.  Kowhai Park in Whanganui is, sadly, a wreck as well.  The political world is a mess, with an evil Bill Chambers as Prime Minister, and the Western Alliance – aka WA (USA, UK, Australia, Taiwan, Malaysian Federation, Republic of Indonesia, Peru) and the United People’s Republic – aka UPR (China, East Russia, United Korea, Japan, Republic of Indochina, Fiji and Chile) being the big boys that little New Zealand is squeezed between.   There are also State-siders – citizens of the USA.  The only State-siders  referenced in the book are evil manipulators of Muru – an activist group that has been taken over by WA secret service agents (aforementioned state-siders) for their own wicked purposes.

These acronyms dehumanise those involved to the extent that they become paper-thin manipulators and manipulated, according to the needs of the plot.  Shaun McCarthy, of the CTU (Combined Trade Union) is the face of the good guys – and the book is littered with his pithy aphorisms, reminding us of exactly what a good guy he was – Freedom has a very thin veneer if you look too closely.  He is Ashley’s dad, and is killed in a bombing of CTU headquarters at the beginning of the story – but who did the bombing – and who did the manipulating become the question.

New Zealand is effectively in a state of war.  Ash has to get his younger brother Mikey, who has Down Syndrome, to a safe place, and along the way collects together a somewhat eccentric band of followers.  There is Jiao, a Chinese student whom he is initially suspicious of, since he assumes her allegiance to the UPR.

‘How the hell can they get away with this?  It’s an outright act of war.’

‘They?’ Jiao’s eyebrow lifts.

‘Come on.  Even you must see that it’s the UPR.’

She tucks the collar of Dad’s dressing gown under her chin. ‘Jumping to conclusions never helps.’

‘Conclusions?’ I bark it out before I can switch down my volume.  ‘It’s pretty bloody obvious.  They’ve been screwing with our politics for years.’

As you and every country in the Western Alliance have screwed with theirs.’

However, Ash develops trust for Jiao as he sees Mikey’s devotion to her.  And there is Travis – alcoholic and would be drama student, son of Police Officer, Jeannie Smith, who takes an initially unfathomable maternal role in the story.  And Erich, neurosurgeon turned ‘green’, and (handily) benefactor and Lucinda Lasch, dad’s lawyer, who to Ash’s surprise and admiration – Fuck me, she really is a porn star! All she needs is fishnets and a whip, was possibly his father’s girlfriend as well.  Ash is very hormonally driven – although maybe this was a little over done.  Having said that, it wasn’t unbelievable, just tiresome.

The story moves along at a cracking pace.  There is always another twist to the plot, another character flaw or strength to be revealed and another of Dad’s pithy aphorisms ‘Note to self: Dad was right. Irony is just hypocrisy with style.’  Certainly Ash is a well drawn character, and this story is exactly as self-absorbed and black and white as his character should be.  And I think that this is appropriate.  Very few of the other characters in this story are really fleshed out to any degree at all, except with their relevance to Ash, although there are a few attempts, ‘Note to self: nobody is as straightforward as they first seem – even pissheads (and big busted girls originally from the UPR)’.

There are some real strengths to this book – the plot is complex and relatively unpredictable.  There are no zombies or vampires – which is a relief.  Ash is a believable character, in many ways.  I can  see it appealing to a wide readership.  The political stance and eco-politics asks readers to reflect on how our society could end up, if we are not vigilant and thoughtful.

O, it is excellent
To have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous
To use it like a giant.

(Measure for Measure, William Shakespeare).

It is certainly no hardship to read.  I read it in two sittings, in under a day.  I found myself comparing it to other titles – for example, Tomorrow When the War Began.  I vastly prefer Ellie to Ash as a character, but as I reflected on the similarities and differences between the two, I realised that The Nature of Ash doesn’t brush over the politics, the politics drive the book, possibly to the detriment of character.  It kind of makes Tomorrow, When the War Began feel a little lightweight in comparison.  It is good to have provocative literature.  There were strongly  espoused beliefs in here that could do with exploration.  This should bring about many a lively discussion – I really hope so.  I give this about 4/5 stars, because there is so much that is worthwhile in it.  I see it as best suited to readers of 13+.

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Filed under Children 12+, Five stars, Four stars, New Zealand Post Children's Book Awards, New Zealand Writer, YA 14+

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