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new hokkaido 300dpi

New Hokkaido: James McNaughton, Vic­tor­ia Uni­ver­sity Press


Shame­Joy: Julie Hill, Giant Spar­row Press


Give Us This Day: Helena Wiśniewska Brow, Vic­tor­ia Uni­ver­sity Press

The past, we’re often reminded, is anoth­er coun­try. It’s still inac­cess­ible to even the world­li­est of 21st-cen­tury trav­el­lers; good luck work­ing out the status of forces agree­ment neces­sary to tra­verse that hos­tile ter­rain. You’ll make bet­ter head­way from your sofa. Fran­cis Fukuyama pro­claimed the “End of His­tory” back when CDs were new and the Gulf War was still spec­u­la­tion, and the disc’s been skip­ping ever since.

Sofa-bound time-trav­el­lers, mean­while, explore altern­ate timelines: the past as tum­bling caus­al kal­eido­scope. Emper­or Hiro­hito, who ignited the flash­point to the Japanese–American phase of the Second World War, died months after Fukuyama’s his­tory ended; but in his firebrand days, he had approved the attack that led Amer­ica into the Pacific, an incur­sion that in turn cast an Enola Gay shad­ow over Hiroshi­ma. For his debut nov­el, New Hokkaido, James McNaughton gifts Hiro­hito with a proph­et­ic dream — a vis­ion of Hiroshi­ma in flames — lead­ing to a retreat from Pearl Har­bour, a Second World War without Amer­ica, and a New Zea­l­and liv­ing out the 20th cen­tury as a reluct­ant out­post of the Japan­ese Empire.

It’s an unsa­voury fantasy — what if your grand­par­ents’ queasy Japan­o­pho­bia were the mark of pat­ri­ots in our life­time? — but McNaughton doesn’t let lat­ent Kiwi xeno­pho­bia go unex­amined. There’s some deft explor­a­tion of a coun­try where Buzzy Bees and the haka are stomped out of sight by the occupy­ing power, rather than branded onto ham­burger advert­ise­ments. It’s hard to be sure just how far McNaughton is tak­ing the joke — our appar­ently cul­tured prot­ag­on­ist spends a lot of time com­par­ing Japan­ese people to anim­als and fan­tas­ising about shaven kawaii honeys — but give his explor­a­tion the bene­fit of the doubt.

Alt-his­tory abounds fur­ther in Shame­Joy, Julie Hill’s short-story col­lec­tion and the debut of Wel­ling­ton pub­lish­er Giant Spar­row Press. Here, a girl named Pan­ia ends the Cold War, only for Aus­tralia and New Zea­l­and to launch hos­til­it­ies over a god­damn mediocre desert; and cha­ris­mat­ic weirdos accrue subtle under­cur­rents of devo­tion in the shad­ow of holy moun­tains. It’s a twee-as-you-please jaunt through a world where everything, as we’d say in New Zild, is ‘a but shut’: a voice equal parts Lena Dun­ham and Fred Dagg.

After ven­tur­ing so far into the what-if and the nev­er-was, the simple things have a wel­come weight. Give Us This Day is Wel­ling­ton author Helena Wiśniewska Brow’s mem­oir of fam­ily and exile, and in its way every bit as caus­ally adven­tur­ous as Hill and McNaughton’s excur­sions. Brow and her age­ing fath­er explore a Europe over­turned by the Second World War, retra­cing the Pol­ish migrant jour­neys of a half-cen­tury earli­er. Brow maps the lines between, from her father’s jour­ney through to the form­a­tion of her own fam­ily: a life­time of unset­tle­ment, end­ing up in a place that, for many here, will always feel like anoth­er country.


Tom Goulter

Tom is FishHead's book columnist. A Master's degree in Creative Writing from Victoria's International Institute of Modern Letters launched Goulter on the life of an itinerant man of letters, wandering the fractious United states in search of.. whatever it was Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper were after, probably. Instead of getting shot by rednecks (yet), he returned to Wellington, where he essays semi-regularly into popular culture, psycho-geography, underground film-making, and the uncanny in all its myriad forms. Not a day goes by that he does not wish Manners Street still had Crystal city on it.