REVIEW: JUNO & HANNAH BY BERYL FLETCHER

JUNO & HANNAH

Author: Beryl Fletcher
Spinifex Press RRP $24.99
Review: Monique Mulligan

The role of women post WWI, eugenics and religion are among the issues explored by Beryl Fletcher in Juno & Hannah, a novella that comes in at just over 170 pages. While it’s short on length, it’s not short on thought-provoking ability; Juno & Hannah is a powerful story about two courageous, but vulnerable, young women who are, in a sense, the face of many women of their time.

It’s 1920 and deep in the New Zealand bush, a settlement of Christian fundamentalists live a life of austerity and isolation. Sisters Juno (nearly 14) and Hannah (perhaps about 19) have grown up in the community, knowing that they, like the other women, are forever marked by Eve’s original sin; compassion is scarce, but even less so for the women, who are ruled over by stern elders who mete out punishment for sins, big and small.

When a strange man washes up on the riverbank, Hannah goes to his aid; after breathing life into him, she pleads for him to be given time to recover before sending him on his way. Suspicious and reluctant, the elders agree, but later put Hannah on trial for necromancy (communicating with, or raising the dead); for almost a month, Hannah is forced to live in isolation, until Juno’s behaviour forces her early release. The community is wary of Juno – she’s considered a “mental defective” (she’s likely high-functioning autistic) – and has made arrangements to remove her. An ally, Sarah, helps Hannah and Juno flee the settlement, but the girls are soon forced to accept help, despite Hannah’s growing uncertainty about who is friend or foe.

Fletcher, award-winning author of four novels, a memoir and a number of short stories, paints an evocative picture of the untamed bush in New Zealand; beautiful and breathtaking, it’s also mysterious, fickle, confusing and dangerous. Despite her familiarity with the bush, there are moments when Hannah doesn’t understand its wild ways; this, she realises, is what life is also like. There are things that cannot always be understood, things people do or say, or those that just happen, but as best as possible, we must try to move forward anyway.

Although the characterisation of the bush is particularly vivid and almost overshadows the quieter protagonists, Hannah and Juno’s characters paint a compelling portrait of innocence, vulnerability, strength and courage – a universal portrait of womanhood. Also interesting was the portrayal of relationships between women, ranging from protective, compassionate to competitive; the “sisterhood” was apparent on many occasions, when women banded together to help another, despite the cost. However, I do have a misgiving about the characterisation of the male characters: while it was empowering to see women’s strength in the face of adversity emerge as the victor over men’s physical strength in Juno & Hannah, I felt that all the male characters (even Mr Cattermole) were portrayed as weak and untrustworthy, which seemed unfair. I’d have liked to have seen a decent male character just to give balance.

It took a while to really connect with the story itself (I have to be in the mood for literary fiction), and it ends as abruptly as it starts, but at the end I was left wondering what would happen to these women, as well as the issues raised. A short, but worthwhile read, Juno & Hannah is one I’d recommend for those who like a dash of literary gothic.

Available from good bookstores and Spinifex Press. This copy was courtesy of Spinifex Press.

Bookish treat: Bread-making featured in this novel a fair bit (there’s probably a metaphor in there about growth and taking a bit of pummeling before rising to the challenge); for that reason, the sourdough I just ate with home-made strawberry jam seemed just right.