In a Land of Paper Gods by Rebecca Mackenzie
In a Land of Paper Gods is set in China during the second Sino- Japanese War and concentrates on the years from 1941 to 1945. It follows the story of Etta, known for the first few years of her life by her chinese name, Ming-Mei. The daughter of English missionaries, Etta (Henrietta S. Robertson), is sent to boarding school as all the missionarry children were. A six year old, she leaves her parents and travels to the sacred mountain of Lushan a mysterious land of mists, forests and ravines. The landscape permeates the story and Etta ,cut off from her parents, lives in her own world, full of imagination and fantasies.
In the background and getting ever closer is the threat of the Japanese troops. The book concentrates on Etta's life from the age of ten to fifteen. It starts slowly with accounts of her life with her group of friends who form themselves into 'The Prophetesses' under her leadership. With her friends, she gets into all sorts of scrapes as she imagines that she has a calling from God. She is impulsive and attention seeking. This leads at times to the other girls tiring of her so called 'prophesies'. She is difficult to pin down at first and seems to be full of the vagueness and mystery of the environment. Lushan seems to soak into every page.
This is a coming of age story as Etta grows up from the impressionable child at the beginning. As the book gets darker and at times, brutal, you see the characters change and adapt. I enjoyed seeing them develop and also how Etta's relationship with Aunty Muriel changes. Aunty Muriel looks after the girls in Dormitory A and scattered through the book are excerpts from her diary. I would have liked more of these. For the most part, we have only Etta's point of view.
The strength of the book lies in the characterisation and in the atmosphere which is evoked of longing in separation and loneliness. The two cultures, of the Christianity of Lushan School and the Chinese way of life of the monks and villagers co- exist, with Etta seemingly not really comprehending either. She seems lost but matures as the story develops.
In short: a coming of age story which is packed with atmosphere and which lingers in your mind after the story ends.
I received a copy of the book from Tinder Press via Bookbridgr.