This debut novel by local author Kirsty Powell is highly recommended.
The Strength of Eggshells is the story of Kate, a six-foot-tall rural girl with an uncertain heritage. It is firmly set in New Zealand, and the locations in the story (including Kingseat, Waikaretu and Clarks Beach) are instantly recognisable and vividly described.
Seeking answers to her past, Kate sets off on her motorbike to find out what happened to her grandmother Meredith. Rather than leaving us to know the story only by following Kate’s investigations, we also have chapters written from Meredith’s point of view. We learn about her marriage to a returned WWI soldier and their life in an isolated valley up the Whanganui River.
A further vantage point is shown in the musings of a retired doctor who treated Kate’s mother at Kingseat when it was still a psychiatric hospital.
There is a great love of rural New Zealand life which shines through the story. Descriptions of pig hunting and sheep shearing are full of detail that rings true. The author has done considerable research for this book, yet it isn’t until the chapter notes at the back that the reader is aware of it, so seamlessly is it woven into the tale.
The writing is often very beautiful:
‘Humanity washes on and off the steamer at every stop. Hatrick’s boats have become the lifeblood for people of all hues on this river. Always folk standing, watching, waiting for the steamer to arrive. They never turn their backs until the boat has gone out of sight.’
At the centre of the book is a mystery – why was Kate adopted out? The reader is also keen to know who her father was, something never directly revealed by Kate’s mother.
It is not an easy story. There is violence, sexism, rape and murder, but never gratuitously.
Yet it is also a story that goes beyond Kate’s own search for identity. It helps us remember who we are as a nation, with our predominantly rural roots.
The Strength of Eggshells is a stunning first novel, and we hope to see more from this fine author.