My name is Henrietta S Robertson. That’s my English name. It is the name on my name tags, my holiday suitcase and on my cabin trunk. It is the name written by my mother on the first page of my Bible. My Chinese name is Ming-Mei, which means Bright and Beautiful. It isn’t labelled anywhere. It’s just a name I carry in my thoughts, a name that echoes when I try to remember Mother’s voice.
1941. Etta is the daughter of missionaries in China, raised with both the devout Christianity of her parents, and the beliefs of the village that her parents want to convert. At the age of six, she was sent to Lushan School, a school set up for the children of missionaries in the Jiangxi Province. Now ten, Etta is certain that she, like her parents, has a divine calling and enlists her fellow students into the prophetess club, where they give themselves new names and their duties include making regular prophecies and saying ‘hark’ a lot. But the power struggle within the club between Etta and her rival Big Bum Eileen spills over, and Etta’s attempts to regain control end in disaster.
Meanwhile, the Sino-Japanese War rages on, and even isolated as the school is, it cannot escape the Japanese soldiers forever. Etta’s journey of self-discovery is interrupted as she and her classmates find themselves in a Japanese internment camp.
In a Land of Papers Gods is a story that I had never heard before – that of the children of missionaries left in boarding schools. The daughter of Scottish missionaries, Rebecca Mackenzie based In a Land of Paper Gods on her own childhood, which she spent much of in Thailand and that sense of being in-between cultures comes through very clearly through Etta. A strong feeling of abandonment also runs throughout the novel. The children aren’t used to affection – even Aunty Muriel, the kindest of the teachers, keeps a distance – and when one of the mothers visits, the children flock to her, seeking maternal approval for reasons they don’t quite understand. In one scene, another mother tries to leave her hysterical son in the school. Watching, the girls remark ‘It’s not fair of her to come and visit him.’ Later, one of Etta’s classmates breaks down and Etta notes that she ‘is not playing the game of pretending everything’s okay.’
Something I particularly admired was how convincingly Mackenzie captured the voice of children at the school: occasionally self-important, frequently cruel, accidentally funny, and often repeating things they hear without quite understanding what they fully mean. Etta’s nemesis Big Bum Eileen is a particular highlight – a figure of authority in the dormitory as the only one yet to have ‘boobies’ (which are measured on a weekly basis). Though Etta is certainly a precocious and anxious child, she is also naive, boisterous and needy in that very familiar way of children. Living in a remote and mystical part of the world, and battling classroom hierarchies, it is only in the internment camp, outside the stiflingly claustrophobic school environment, that she can meet other people and grow up.
I initially found it quite hard to review this book – I couldn’t work out if I found it rushed a little through the third part, but I generally found it satisfying and very enjoyable. The writing is stunning and very effectively conveys both the hazy, misty atmosphere of the mountains – and the harsh heat and hardships of the internment camps. In a Land of Paper Gods is a strikingly original and very touching debut – and I really look forward to what comes next.
In a Land of Paper Gods by Rebecca Mackenzie is published by Tinder Press.