THE CHILDREN'S POND by Tina Shaw
Review copy kindly provided by Pointer Press, via Booksellers' Association NZ.
What a cover. Beautiful still photograph of a gnarled old tree on a shady bank of flowing Tongariro River. Conveying a sufficiently high degree of spookiness, mystery, some anxiety, plus of course that enigmatic title. As with many New Zealand novels, you know immediately, that the scenery, flora and fauna are going to be a significant part of the plot, the setting, and general atmosphere of the book.
The Children's Pond is actually a real place, on the Tongariro River, at the National Trout Centre just outside the township of Turangi, as are most of the places in this novel. It is in this pond, one day, that the body of a young woman is discovered. But that is only a small part of the story and a lot happens before this particular alarming episode. Jessica is a woman in her late 30s who has moved from Auckland to Turangi to be close to her son, recently sentenced to a stint in Rangipo prison. She finds work at a fishing lodge and slowly sets about finding her feet, rebuilding her relationship with her son, and dealing with a sizeable amount of personal baggage. Being a small community it is not long before she finds herself drawn into the lives of those around her, in particular the family of the dead young woman. Slowly the threads of Jessica's early life and the lives of those she gets to know in Turangi become more and more entangled, until Jessica herself is at the centre of the danger.
Even though the river cannot speak, it is probably the largest character in this tightly written and gripping novel. The river domintaes the lives of those attached to the fishing lodge, both the tourists, the owners and the employees. All rivers have a life of their their own, a secret beauty, peace, tranquility and enticements. Jessica is no less sucked in than the next person and finds her main solace in learning to fly fish. Now, if there was ever an advertisement to get someone out there learning to fly fish, then Ms Shaw is the perfect person to be writing about it. I am not at all surprised to see that this book is dedicated to Bruce - "who showed me the grace of fly fishing". Her descriptions of fly fishing are glorious, for me the highlight of this book. I know nothing about fly fishing, and have never had any interest in it. But now? I would love to have a crack at it. She writes in such a way about the art of fly fishing that I get why people come from all over the world to fish for trout in New Zealand rivers. And mostly they fish for the sport of catching, not for the killing and eating.
Tina Shaw is not an author I have heard of. But I probably should have, and after reading this latest work, I am really keen to read more. A scroll through the list of publications on her small but perfectly formed website reveals a writer interested in all sorts of subjects and places and plot lines. She has written fiction for children, young adults and adults, as well as short stories, two anthologies and two works of non-fiction. Writing would appear to be her life.
This is a really good story, totally believeable and well written. There is a spooky and sinister overtone running through the whole story, short sentences, wonderful descriptions and visualisations, interesting characters, all with a back story. Everybody who has ever been to the Turangi area, even if just driving through, will already have a sense of the place. Reading this book makes you feel like you are still there, and may even make you want to go back.