Review by Tristan Foster
The story opens with a river in flood. The rain has kept Juno and Hannah inside, and at the first opportunity they hurry out, down to the river. Their simple lives are disrupted when they spot the body of a man in the water. Juno goes to find help while Hannah pulls the man out, strips him of his clothes and brings him back to life. Rather than rewarding the girl, the head of the Christian community they are a part of puts Hannah on trial, as well as Mr Cattermole, the man she has saved. While she is in isolation, rumours of plans to send Juno to an orphanage find their way to her and she decides they must leave.
Juno & Hannah, by New Zealand writer Beryl Fletcher, is the story of two young women as they flee through the New Zealand bush in an attempt to escape the community. Complicating this is the fact they are alone, having lived most of their brief lives in servitude and are unskilled beyond the house – in plainer words, they are female: ‘I am useless,’ Hannah thinks, ‘I am a blank slate that has yet to be exposed to the world.’ To further compound the issue, Juno has a mental disorder. She requires near-constant attention, and after their escape it becomes clear she is pregnant.
The mysteries are layered on from the outset. Why is Hannah put on trial for saving a life? Mr Cattermole leaves the courtroom with a wink and a smile – why does he act with such familiarity? What was he doing here? Why does Abraham, the leader of the community, keep the girls at arm’s length? Why are they in an obscure cult at all? The resolutions to these are not immediately forthcoming; indeed, many of them only get partly resolved – and the introduction of Hannah and Juno’s estranged father, and then their mother, ensure that the mysteries only multiply.
As well as opening the story, a river appears again at a later point in the narrative. The girls, using the river as a guide, walk to near exhaustion. Mr Cattermole finds them and is amused that the girls chose to follow the river – it loops in on itself. They were walking in circles. He returns the favour to Hannah by leading the girls to shelter.
The river is a handy motif. The story too flows and meanders like a running river, snaking in on itself before straightening, only to begin to curl again. The pace has the effect of smoothing the narrative out, keeping it consistent as mysteries rise or as they are resolved. It works to ensure that what is a complex story never loses focus.
But it also has the effect of sweeping key events along with it. The steady tone and progression makes it hard to find a part of the story that differentiates itself from another part. Hannah saving the life of Mr Cattermole or an attempt to abort Juno’s pregnancy is therefore given the same weight – in tone, in importance – as Hannah’s explanation to Juno about how to bake the perfect loaf of soda bread or horse rides through the bush. The result is a curious absence of gravitas, which is made even more obvious by the fact that, having grown up in the Christian community, the girls have lived otherwise mundane lives.
Juno & Hannah is maybe more correctly described as the story of two girls who try to reclaim their fates from men. The leader of the Christian community, the man who impregnated Juno, the group of eugenicists – all men – who want to forcefully abort Juno’s baby, as well as other men they meet along the way all attempt to exert control over Juno and Hannah. The girls are passed around like a problem.
The only man in the story that is of high moral standing is Mr Cattermole. It is him who teaches Hannah skills she had not previously been allowed to learn in the community – ‘This was man’s work.’ He does it unthinkingly and with respect, empowering Hannah, allowing her to prove herself capable.
Bravery in writing is coming to an unpopular conclusion, or offering up a conclusion that may not be a conclusion at all; both acknowledge that solutions to the problems of the world don’t always come easy. By no means must a novel neatly agree with wider society’s stances and opinions. Indeed, it is what literature does best. It is why novels are burned or banned, why, at some points in history (the present moment not excluded), writers are imprisoned. Fletcher is a brave writer. On the subject of Juno’s pregnancy, the eugenicists who intend to force an abortion prove themselves to be as bad as the Christians, if not worse. But then the only answer for Juno, who is incapable of fully grasping the fact and consequences of her pregnancy, seems to be that she must have the baby despite the terms of its conception and despite her physical shortcomings. Fletcher posits that neither science nor religion have the answer, that it is for nature to decide. Their relationship with men is another subject of complexity. The men in Juno & Hannah are almost universally bad and almost universally view women as objectives to be ordered and shuffled about. Here, as mentioned, Mr Cattermole is the exception. But while he saves their lives, they also spend a large portion of the story being chauffeured through the bush and out of trouble by him. They are dependent on his knowledge of the bush, his courage and his morality. They depend, in other words, on his masculinity. Without it, they would have died along the river.
But maybe, less than his manliness, it is Mr Cattermole’s goodness that compels him to help. The men in the story are bad, and while the women aren’t good, they are kept from goodness or, as in the case of Juno and Hannah’s mother, turned mad and into outcasts by the oppression of men. The goodness in Mr Cattermole is the reciprocation of the goodness of Hannah.
So, which wins in the end, goodness or nature? Juno and Hannah must find their way out of an insular community, through the bush and into lives of their own making. They seek their freedom. But, from Fletcher’s point of view, when it has been kept from someone so absolutely, freedom can be dangerous. If it is either goodness or nature that wins, it is not any sort of neat victory.
Juno & Hannah
Spinifex Press, 2013
173 pages, $24.95
Review by Tristan Foster