Monday, February 23, 2015

'The Settling Earth' by Rebecca Burns


2015 Reading Challenge Week 8 - A book set in a different country.
The country I've chosen is fairly close to me, just slightly to the east, but I still have never managed to visit yet. 

 Marriage transplants Sarah thousands of miles from home; a failed love affair forces Phoebe to make drastic choices in a new environment; a sudden, shocking discovery brings Mrs Ellis to reconsider her life as an emigrant — The Settling Earth is a collection of ten, interlinked stories, focusing on the British settler experience in colonial New Zealand, and the settlers’ attempts to make sense of life in a strange new land.

Sacrifices, conflict, a growing love for the landscape, a recognition of the succour offered by New Zealand to Maori and settler communities — these are themes explored in the book. The final story in the collection, written by Shelly Davies of the Ngātiwai tribe, adds a Maori perspective to the experience of British settlement in their land.


This is a book of compelling short stories set in colonial New Zealand. They focus on a number of women who find themselves trying to eke out a living with their families.

At first, I thought the stories seem to follow on from each other like a set of dominoes. In each one, a reference is made to someone else, who then becomes the focal point of the next story. The domino arrangement is circular, as some of the characters we met at the start re-appear toward the end.

Though each of the stories can stand alone, having a book written in this unusual way of interlinked stories highlights something significant. There's a vicious circle which people don't even realise they are part of. In the harsh new southern land, settlers tend to build walls of detachment and aloofness to protect themselves by keeping despair at arm's length. Yet the detachment and aloofness keeps the cycle going. These women are living desperate and lonesome lives separately, yet right beside each other. I can easily imagine that I would have been just the same in their place.

The writing is vivid enough to draw us right into the picture and recreate these rough times as if we're watching them unfold. Even though the tone is fairly bleak and sober, some rays of hope are left in threads which aren't tied up (and I guess they don't have to be, since these are short stories). For me, they come through the younger characters. There's a robust little baby named Dottie, who is still too little to know about the hard world she's entered, and a creative teen named Laura, whose secret art helps her to retreat for a time, and be outside of things.

I wasn't impressed with the men who appear within these pages. It seemed that being male automatically meant being written as an inferior character; controlling, repugnant and nasty. It hardly seemed Miss Swainson, the local madam, needed to warn her girls to leave all their romantic notions at the door with a crowd like that. I'm glad there were passing references to a few good men, although they seemed to have either moved on or passed away. The men who were fixtures in this book all seemed to be the harsh, bestial type for the most part, who would take what they wanted with no compassion. Yet it seemed to be written this way for a purpose. In the last chapter, written by guest author Shelly Davies, the Maori character Haimona sums up the situation with his opinion about the problem with white settlers, of which this inequality between the genders is a feature. I'll leave you to get to that part.

Thanks to the author and Net Galley for providing me with a review copy.

4.5 stars

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