It’s been a few years since Terry Pratchett last stepped out of his hugely successful Discworld universe. Nation, his wonderful new novel for young adults, is set in a world very similar to our own. The Nation is an island in the South Pelagic (not, the author insists in his afterword, the South Pacific); an island so small that it doesn’t show up on European maps. Mau, a resident of the Nation, is returning from the Boys’ Island to complete the rituals that will make him officially a man. By the time he reaches, a tidal wave has swept away the village, killed everyone he knows, and deposited a British ship in the middle of the forest.
When she first boarded the Sweet Judy, Ermintrude (she prefers to be known as Daphne) was 139th in line to the throne of an England that rules most of the world, and that is afraid of nothing but the human leg. Now the direct heir, she must face the challenges afforded by a lewd parrot, a shortage of napkins, and a boy who refuses to wear trousers.
Any number of shipwreck stories for children have been written over the centuries. Mau and Daphne’s adventures are not merely concerned with survival or buried treasure (though they face both of these too). They must re-forge a nation from the survivors of the wave and from what they learn of the island’s past.
Leadership involves doing all the dirty work and isn’t much fun. While Daphne must amputate limbs, deliver babies, and chew food for a toothless old woman, Mau is forced to commit unmentionable acts to obtain milk for a small child. Both must constantly battle the voices of their ancestors. The Grandfathers (whose two main concerns are religion and beer) shout constantly and irascibly in Mau’s head. Daphne has to overcome the teachings of a grandmother (“a mixture of Boadicea without the chariot, Catherine de Medici without the poisoned rings and Attila the Hun without his wonderful sense of fun.”) with strong views on ladylike behaviour and the dangers of Going Native. Set during the strongest days of the British Empire, Nation has a lot to say about colonialism, most of it scathing.
“I can prove that no European has been in this cave before me.” Daphne looked around, chest heaving with passion.
“See the gold on the gods and the globe and the big door?” “Yes. Of course, dear. I could hardly fail to notice.” “There you are, then,” said Daphne, picking up the lamp. “It’s still here!” Then there’s the budding romance between Daphne and Mau, watched closely by the rest of the Nation (“it was like being in a Jane Austen novel, but with far less clothing”) and punctuated with adorable cannibal-centred compliments.“No, they would never eat a woman,” said Mau.
“That’s very gentlemanly of them!” “No, they would feed you to their wives, so that they become beautiful.”
But the children have gone through trauma to get this far. Worn out from performing the last rites of his entire tribe, Mau is constantly questioning his gods. Daphne has been doing the same since the death of her mother. In a book that tells us that “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” is a good song for a child because “it began with aquestion”, this questioning of everything becomes, for Pratchett, something of a moral imperative. Nation begins and ends with pictures of the stars, and on the last page is printed a map of the world with South at the top. Pratchett will not condemn characters who shrink from having their world turned upside down, but they’re never the ones he chooses as his heroes.