Bugs – Whiti Hereaka
Young Adult, NZ fiction. Five stars.
I think Bugs may well be one of the most believable, angry, perverse, defensive and clever adolescent characters I have read, in quite some time. She’d be bloody hard to have around, but you’d have to admire how staunch she is, not that she’d care. And don’t bother trying to pull the wool over her eyes. She’s already decided what she thinks of you, and most likely you’re not going to get a Christmas card any time soon.
Bugs, and her mate Jez, live in picture perfect Taupō. But, as Bugs points out, it’s not really perfect:
‘I’m walking home from work. Mum likes to make out like I’ve earned her trust back, but I reckon it’s because she’s working late and Uncle can’t be arsed. So I get to walk home unsupervised – big whoop – like I’m some seven-year-old. But it’s the only chunk of freedom I’ve been allowed these holidays, so I’ll take it. And it’s kind of nice to wander home; it’s warm in the afternoon but not too hot yet. It’s that funny time in spring when the world seems confused: daffodils and snap frosts, lambs born too early dying in the cold. That time when you can sit at the lakefront in just a t-shirt and look at the mountains still frozen with snow and think it’s like a postcard – but then the mountains remind you that they’re real: the wind changes and their cold breath chills you.’
And a lot of this is what the book is about – the conflict of expectation and reality, rich and poor, poor and poorer, youth and age, surface and depth, good and bad, absolute and relative, what-I-see and what-you-see. The setting of volcanically active Taupō, with its volcanoes angry below a cracked surface of boiling mud pools and geysers, is a brilliant metaphor for adolescence and adds to the feeling that something is going to blow at any time. Lake Taupō was formed by a volcanic explosion, and Ruapēhu is still actively rumbling.
Bugs, like any teenager, is a bundle of conflicts. She’s clever enough to question the adults around her, and to examine the school system, actually every system, and find it very much wanting. But she’s also quick to judge, and decide what others believe and think. That adolescent ‘don’t judge me, but I’ll judge you.’ She’s angry. A lot. But she’s also vulnerable. Jez is her best mate and has been for ever, and now Stone Cold, the new rich chick in town, is trying to get in on the act. Bugs trusts no-one, but she especially doesn’t trust Stone Cold, who seems to have everything and value nothing.
Bugs resents the way the school tries to ‘motivate’ Māori youth:
I was barely older than that kid, that time the teachers rounded up all us kids – actually rounded us up – no shit, it was like the teachers were header dogs…Anyway, there’s all us kids – OK Māori kids – rounded up for a seminar on Māori ‘achievement’. What it really was – a bunch of loser seniors saying how hard they’d worked to pass. Just pass. And then they hit us over the head with statistics about how most of us would fail; most of us would amount to sweet F.A. And it was supposed to be motivating.
Bugs is determined to do things her way. But that doesn’t mean she always manages to. She gets sucked into the vortex of bad decision making, lots of times. For the right reasons and the wrong reasons. And she’ll try to prove to you why she’s right, even when she knows she’s skating on thin ice. And don’t try to predict the outcome, because she’ll write her own script, thanks very much.
Congratulations, too, to Huia Publishing, who have made this book a pleasure to hold and read in hard copy. The spine feels strong and flexible, the pages are a good quality paper, and space is given between chapters to reflect – not that you want to pause, because the plot is compelling and drives you on. I think that the white and black of the cover, with its shot of red are superb. But I especially like the back, with the voice of Bugs already defined and strong:
‘They call me Bugs. As in Bunny.
Yeah, I know.’
Without wanting to labour it, that all of the words except ‘I know’ are written in red (on white) with I know written in black, we already have a flavour of the character to come – who are ‘they’? The emphasis on I know – at once linking the reader (we know it’s dumb) and separating the reader (she doesnt know what I think) – ‘knowing’ is such a tenuous concept in this book.
There is so much to say about this book, but you’d be better off reading it. Be prepared to be challenged and to be richer for the experience.
I don’t think that my Year 11 son’s English teacher will use this as a text – although she should, but its language and blatant sex talk may challenge their boundaries. No actual sex, though, for those who are worried.
This is a vastly superior coming of age novel to any I have read in a long time. It is well deserving of a short listing for this year’s NZ Post Children’s Book Awards…I just wish they would properly sort their categories – because I would recommend (not censor – an important discrimination) this book for 14yrs+.
I got my copy through Fishpond
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