Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 8, 2016

Juno & Hannah, by Beryl Fletcher #BookReview

Juno and Hannah

Beryl Fletcher (born 1938) is a notable New Zealand novelist.   She won the Commonwealth Writers Prize Best First Book, for the Asia/Pacific region in 1992 for her first novel, The Word Burners and I see from Wikipedia that she has been Writer in Residence at the University of Iowa, at Waikato University (NZ), at Ledig House in New York and at the Randell Cottage (NZ).   But interestingly, all her five novels and her memoir have been published by Spinifex Press right here in Melbourne.

Juno & Hannah is the story of two sisters who flee from a fundamentalist sect living in dense New Zealand bushand in the 1920s.  The sense of isolation and hope of a better life elsewhere is cued in by the cover image, the light shining through the trees as if to lead the women out of dark ignorance and into a more welcoming world.

The Floating Garden(#MomentaryDigression: Spinifex do great cover designs.  My favourite is Emma Ashmere’s The Floating Garden which I bought in 2015 after reading Marilyn’s review at Me, You and Books and must read soon.  The painting, just perfect for the book’s content because it’s about people made homeless by the building of the iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge, is by the influential modernist painter Dorrit Black).

The sisters need to flee because Hannah has transgressed by resuscitating a drowned man, a stranger.  It is not just that she has hitched up her skirts to do it, it is that it is God who determines life and death, and so she is punished by being ostracised and isolated from the community.  And because she is no longer close beside Juno, who is developmentally delayed, Juno causes trouble in the community so the Old Testament patriarch Abraham decides that she must be sent away to an orphanage because she is not ‘productive’.  (This turns out to be a response to the eugenics movement, which was widespread in the 20th century before WW2, including in Australia and New Zealand).  The sisters’ flight is a quest to find a safe place and liberation from the religious and social constraints with which they have been raised.

Their escape takes place in a gothic environment (impenetrable forests, disconcerting trails leading them astray, ghostly figures pursuing them, a mysterious white house).  For an Australian reader, this is interesting because the usual hostile environment in our fiction is the ’empty’ desert.

What I found a bit disappointing about this book was that the women don’t challenge the patriarchy that oppresses them, and they remain dependent mostly on men.  Juno and Hannah run away rather than confront the patriarch, and while Hannah thinks a lot of rebellious thoughts, she doesn’t express them.  The women who help them also don’t stand up to men, and there isn’t much sense of a sisterhood either, though some of them do nurturing things while they find surreptitious ways to help Juno and Hannah without subverting the ‘natural order’.  The man who helps them does so because he’s paid for it.  This makes it hard for Hannah to know who to trust. There is a sense that men’s power was so absolute, and not just in kooky religious sects, that it could only be undermined by a determined few.  And although the story takes place in the 1920s the setting in a sect situated in a remote wilderness makes it a timeless phenomenon.  (I’ve got two books set in contemporary patriarchal religious sects on my TBR.  These sects just seem ever to go away, they simply emerge in a different form, always involving male domination.)

I didn’t take to the writing style.  It’s quite terse in places, and (presumably intentionally) it can be jerky, perhaps to make the reader pause and pay more attention.

Three sheep with vacant eyes and heavy fleeces appeared from nowhere.  The dog pricked up his ears.  Mr Cattermole ordered Jacka to stay.

‘The poor things,’ said Hannah.  ‘They can barely walk.’

‘They still belong to someone even though they are runaways.’

‘Can’t we help them?’

‘Beware the farmer with his gun.’

‘You mean we could get shot?’

‘The dog could.’

Juno, who had slumped forward without speaking for most of the journey, heard this and lurched violently, almost falling off the horse and taking Hannah and the saddle with her. (p.47)

I wondered if this staccato passage was meant to make us focus on the sentence about the sheep belonging to someone even though they’ve run away.   Does Mr Cattermole think that these sisters still belong to the patriarch even though they are runaways too?  Is he warning them that they and he (for helping them) are risking significant punishment?  Perhaps so, but I thought the style disrupted the flow of the story.

BTW, I was intrigued by Hannah’s references to her pikau.  I deduced that it was something like a backpack or satchel, but actually, it’s much nicer than that and when you see how it’s made you can understand why she is so upset when it goes missing:

 

 

Sue at Whispering Gums reviewed this a while ago, and there’s also an interesting review at the Rochford St Review. .

Author: Beryl Fletcher
Title: Juno & Hannah
Publisher: Spinifex Press, 2013
ISBN: 9781742198750
Review copy courtesy of Spinifex Press

Availability

You can download any of Beryl Fletcher’s titles as eBooks from Spinifex Press, one of them for as little as $9.99, but if like me you like the feel of the book in the hand, you can order the paperback versions direct from the site or from Fishpond: Juno & Hannah.


Responses

  1. Thanks for the link Lisa. I read this so long ago now that I don’t think I can respond to the things that bothered you. I know that I found it an unusual and intriguing read, and I did like the writing – the mix from the short sentences to the long more descriptive ones. That worked for me.

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    • I kept think of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, but I read that so long ago I couldn’t remember it well enough to discuss differences and similarities. The thing I remember most about The Handmaid’s Tale was that women had had equality, and had it taken away from them, a bit like what happened to educated women in Kabul under the Taliban. I remember her astonishment and dismay when her credit card didn’t work. But in J&H they have never had equality in the first place. In tandem, these books offer plenty to think about.

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      • Interesting Lisa … I hadn’t thought of comparing those too … and I think they’re both too distant now for me to draw any sensible conclusions. Atwood’s book was politically driven – by the fundamentalist right thinking – what drove Fletcher’s do you think?

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  2. I think there’s lots of things going on, but there are elements of the Biblical blame-the-woman for everything (especially things we don’t understand). I thought that she was also exposing ‘slut-shaming’ though (perhaps I missed something crucial) I found it a bit obscure. In the scene where she is resuscitating the man, he is only wearing underpants and she takes them off, and then she lifts up her skirts and straddles him. And when she is ostracised, she takes off items of clothing one-by-one but the woman who could see it don’t, because she has become invisible to them. The only way I can make sense of this is if it’s claiming the right for women to express their sexuality and to bare whatever they like without being judged for it. But I am open to other interpretations because I really wasn’t sure what it was all about.

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  3. This for me is reminiscent of the life stories of Eve Langley and Janet Frame who were both institutionalised in NZ by the dominant men in their lives, at least partly for being inconvenient.

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    • Yes, good thought, that whole heritage of being victimised for not fitting into the box.

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