Coast is an engaging novel by David Carnegie Young, set in Marton, New Zealand, a central North Island town in the Rangitikei District. It is a story told through the lives of three men, Hector and his sons, Doug and Alan, who explore their identities over three generations as fathers and sons within New Zealand.
Hector’s life demonstrates the ambivalence felt by many early Scottish settlers in New Zealand. The prospect of a new and more promising future in New Zealand conflicts with Hector’s emotional bonds and memories of the old country. This ambivalence is often overshadowed by the urgent demands of a volatile landscape in the Koitiata Estuary and surrounds where Hector settles. As a returned serviceman, Hector struggles to cope with everyday life and is plagued by his experiences in the Great War.
Doug is a child of the depression who rises to the challenge of not becoming embittered by his supposedly stolen youth. At other times he is daunted by people flaunting their wealth. With the arrival of WWII, Doug serves in Guadalcanal and experiences war as his father had before him. Although haunted by nightmares of the atrocities he witnessed, Doug does not become weighed down as heavily as Hector. He takes a more pragmatic approach and is able to separate his traumatic memories of the War from the rest of his life.
Alan’s story weaves New Zealand and European culture together as he examines historic events like Parihaka and recalls being told about the Tangiwai disaster and its aftermath. Alan fathers a son of his own with a local Maori woman, Rita. This relationship underscores the differences between Maori and Pakeha in the 1950s. As the story unfolds we see Alan and Rita deal with a tragedy that challenges their very beings.
In Coast, David Carnegie Young has used language appropriate to each generation and you may appreciate colloquialisms you haven’t heard in a while, such as “go to buggery” and “the flax bushes were tall as a man”.
The best part of reading Coast, for me, was that I felt as if I had a visit from my own father as I read it. In the compassionate hand of Young, we see that circumstances and over-culture can often curtail the best intentions and expressions of love: humanity gets in the way.
Conversation was a ragged little rug on a highly waxed floor, around which we lurched as if – in a child’s game – to stray off its edges would plunge us into a chasm. (251)
Coast examines what constitutes a sense of belonging and questions our apparent need to find it in our relationships and within the land. It sounds trite to say, but Coast made me laugh and cry, and most of all I understand a lot more about earlier generations of New Zealanders. I feel there is much to be said for this type of family understanding and honour.
You don’t have to be a New Zealander to appreciate Coast, or even a father or son. Any wonderfully incomplete human will gain much from reading this book – not the least of which a sense of belonging to humanity rather than any particular place, family or person.
Love Cathie xo