In a Land of Paper Gods | Rebecca Mackenzie | 2016 | Tinder Press | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book
Henrietta S. Robertson lives a childhood that is touched by magic. She spends her days in a boarding school, high on a misty, fabled mountain in China, with each part of its gardens, ravines and ponds given special names by the children, creating a remote, secret haven for the young and the imaginative, far from the world below. The children are almost all the sons and daughters of missionaries, parents who would prefer to bring the word of God to the bound feet women and their families than to care for their own children. They escort their offspring up the mountain on chairs carried by the local people and then leave them at the school, in some cases not seeing them again for years.
These are children who bridge two worlds and yet still manage to create for themselves a third. Henrietta, or Etta, has both English and Chinese names. She speaks both languages. But Etta and her friends, including Big Bum Eileen, all have something missing from their lives, not least an attachment to the world below. Led by Etta, they create a secret mystical society, a club of prophetesses, giving themselves new names and adopting mysterious powers, mixing their parents’ Christianity with the spiritualism of their home. But apart as they are, with few teachers to keep an eye on them, it isn’t long before they lose control and the resulting trauma has significant repercussions for Etta – the world she has built is about to collapse for ever. For this is 1941 and it seems that even the most remote part of China cannot escape Japan’s marching soldiers.
In a Land of Paper Gods is a compelling, captivating read. For much of it we are transported to a strange place indeed, experiencing it through the eyes and words of Etta. This is a child’s world but a child separated from her parents, living in an unusual beautiful, mystical place, surrounded by other children in a similar state, and teachers who form part of the family, despite their rules. But rules are there to be disobeyed. Visiting parents are viewed with wonder as is anybody who ventures up the mountain to the school. Mixing with Etta’s account are extracts from the diary of Muriel, one of the teachers and regarded by Etta as an aunt. It’s through Muriel that we keep our feet on the ground and realise just how far Etta and her friends have removed themselves.
This is a novel in two parts – the first two thirds take place on the mountain while, after many ominous signs, the final third throws us into the Second World War as we watch the impact of the Japanese army on the inhabitants of the school. For me, this is when In a Land of Paper Gods comes truly alive, Until then it had been a slightly remote, often humorous and charming, occasionally shocking tale of a lost children’s world. But in the final section reality hits like a hammer and I could not put it down. From that point on everything changes, reality is brutal, and now we see the past at the school in a whole new light. It is very cleverly done as well as powerful and totally gripping.
In a Land of Paper Gods is Rebecca Mackenzie’s debut novel and it’s a standout one. The author brings together two entirely separate worlds, one innocent and the other evil, and yet reveals that neither is entirely free of the other. And at its heart is the unforgettable Henrietta, a girl that we follow through it all, and she is a marvellous creation.