Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 4, 2018

The Earth Cries Out (2017), by Bonnie Etherington

My 2018 reading year didn’t start well: I ditched my first two books, one after the other.  But my first review of 2018 is a different story: The Earth Cries Out by Bonnie Etherington  is a mesmerising, captivating novel that well deserves its nomination for the 2018 Ockham New Zealand Awards.

Narrated in a poignant melancholy tone, the novel takes us to a different place and time.  Ruth Glass looks back on her childhood in the isolation of a village in the West Papuan highlands as a time of dislocation and intense loss.  Her five-year-old sister Julia has died in an horrific accident at home, and everyone feels the guilt and unspoken blame. Her parents are on the verge of divorce at the time of the accident but at her father’s insistence they go as aid workers to West Papua (then in the 1990s known as Irian Jaya).  He thinks it is a form of atonement that will heal them.  His wife Marian is too broken to defy him.  And Ruth is an eight-year-old child made older than her years by this tragic chain of events.  She is haunted by the squabbles she had with her sister and confused by the mixed messages she gets about God, atonement and forgiveness.  The silence overwhelms her.

One day the yellow house held Julia’s voice, and then it did not.  One day I was a sister, and then I was not.  One day we were in a dream world, where Julia was dead and the space where she once was became large and silent, and then we were in another country altogether – where stories and voices made their way into our house any way they could.  They heaved under the floorboards, whispered in the windows.  Creaked in the attic like a python grown too big on rats.  And I collected them all to fill that silence Julia left.  (p.11)

Along with Ruth’s letters to her grandfather in Nelson, NZ, these local stories and voices are scattered through the novel.  Ruth’s friend Susumina tells her stories of places haunted by death – which is an everyday occurrence in the village.  Ruth’s family is not alone in its grief: everyone in Yuvut has lost a loved one, to childbirth, to injury and disease, to malnutrition, AIDS or to the Indonesian regime which suppresses the independence movement with brutal violence.  The light planes – on which the village depends for transport, supplies, medical help and news – crash regularly into the surrounding mountains obscured by mist and rain.  Passengers and crew are often not found for years, though whether that will be reported in the media depends on whether they are foreigners, Indonesian transmigrasi relocated from Java, or locals.

Etherington’s mastery of narrative voice allows the reader to hear both the reflective voice of Ruth as an adult, and as a observant, thoughtful child.  This enables the reader to understand the politics of the Indonesian occupation, the tension between her parents, the dangers of diseases like Dengue Fever and Malaria, and the cruelty of some of the social mores of Yuvut such as the way they treat unmarried mothers.  But we also see a child who absorbs the culture shock, adapts to her new circumstances, and plays games including in forbidden places. She learns the language; she observes the strength of community life; she finds out who to trust.  Her letters to her grandfather describe the beauty of the plants and animals, and also express worries that she dare not reveal to her parents.

My friend Alyssa said that she did not know what her grandparents looked like when she went back to America one time.  And they didn’t know what she would look like either.  I hope I will still know what you and grandma look like when I get back one day.  It might take a long time to get back, though.  Please don’t forget what I look like either. 

In an interview with the NZ Herald, Etherington explains that the authenticity of the novel derives from her own childhood experience in West Papua, but says that her own family is nothing like the one described in the novel.  I don’t doubt that it’s true, but her portrayal of domestic hostilities is utterly convincing.

For another review, see BooksellersNZ. and Landfall NZ.

Author: Bonnie Etherington
Title: The Earth Cries Out
Publisher: Vintage (Penguin Random House) New Zealand, 2017
ISBN: 9780143770657
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond $AUD 29.99

Available from Fishpond: The Earth Cries Out and also at Readings in Australia.


  1. […] The Earth Cries Out by Bonnie Etherington (Vintage, Penguin Random House), on order, see my review […]


  2. Ditched two books already? I almost never ditch books. The last one was around 4 years ago. It was a LibraryThing review freebie. Partly, I think, because my reading time is pretty limited, I try very hard to avoid starting books that I think I’ll get nothing out of, and so far, in recent years, I’ve achieved that. (Probably also means I miss some interesting books, by being too tight!) Anyhow, I’ve also not read a New Zealand book for a long time, which is terrible. Must rectify that.


    • Yes, well, I was expecting to enjoy both of them.. They were both books I’d borrowed from the library…

      Liked by 1 person

      • I wondered if they were library books … I might find that happening to me if I went to the library too and got tempted!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Transmigration is a cruel policy, partly because it is so effective, as we’ve seen before in Northern Ireland and Tibet and of course Australia and NZ.


    • I guess so, but Etherington (doing her best to look at things from multiple perspectives) makes the point that it offers a chance of a better life for slum dwellers in Jakarta – which just can’t bear any increase in population.
      Which made me see this situation from a different PoV. Whatever the other colonising motives of the Suharto government in Papua, transmigrasi was also dealing with unsustainable population growth in Java, foreshadowing the current movement of unwanted aspirational peoples – now steam-rolling across the globe and out of control.
      A friend and I were discussing domestic development issues a day or so ago and she’s very concerned about losing the character of her suburb. But the fact is that the population is growing, and people have to be somewhere. When we say ok, build the new apartments four storeys not eight, where are the people who were going to have a home in the other four storeys going to live? They don’t vanish because of objections to high density living. If they’re not in that suburb because of successful local objections, they’re in someone else’s, creating the same feeling of being invaded and the place being spoiled, just in a different place. Why one, and not the other? Does living somewhere that’s really nice absolve a community from taking a share of the problem because it’s ok to spoil somewhere else but not theirs?
      It’s not a local problem, it’s a world problem. There is a record movement of peoples all over the world. Places that get an influx of these new people object for a variety of good reasons, and the *feelings* they experience are no different whether they are in the remote Papuan highlands subjected to a colonisation program or the urbanised big cities of the West – but where are these people needing homes to go? Why shouldn’t they, because of an accident of birth, have a chance at a better life?
      As I see it, ultimately the problem comes back to the over-population of our poor little planet. The merchants of economic growth *need* a constant growth in population, and the interference of religions doesn’t help…


      • You’ve given my shallow answer a more thoughtful reply than it deserved. I hadn’t thought about the poor of Jakarta at all except as weapons against the Papuans. As for Australia, I like immigration and changing suburbs but of course I would not like to live at whatever is the average income of all 8 billion of us on this planet and I don’t know what is the answer to that.


        • I don’t think there is one either. Even if you and I were willing to lower our standard of living, you can be sure that most people round the planet wouldn’t.
          Sometimes I just can’t bear to look at the news…


  4. […] People are sometimes a bit dismissive of literary prizes, but I’m very pleased to have read most of the longlist for the 2018 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards because that is how I discovered Kiwi author Bonnie Etherington.  Because we in Australia don’t always hear about new released from NZ, I probably would never have heard of her debut novel The Earth Cries Out (2017, Vintage NZ) if it hadn’t been longlisted, yet it turned out to be one of the best nominations IMO. (See my review here). […]


  5. […] The Earth Cries Out by Bonnie Etherington […]


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