One of my favourite books of all time ever is To Kill a Mockingbird and one of the many, many reasons for this is the adorable but not cutesy main character: Scout provides the novel with such vibrancy, innocence and wit that she is basically irresistible. Rebecca Mackenzie’s In a Land of Paper Gods gave me a similar feeling, thanks to the gloriously honest and eccentric narrative provided by Etta, the book’s young protagonist.
Etta is the child of English missionaries, born and raised in China and sent to a secluded boarding school in the mountains at the age of 6. The setting is beautifully realised; every time I picked the book up, I felt immersed in the mists of the mountains and eager to explore the surroundings along with the characters.
Mackenzie does a terrific job of presenting Etta as a rounded character; she is amusing and insecure, imaginative and deceitful, desperate to be liked and isolated by her attempts to make her secluded life more fun. The creation of the Prophetess Club provides moments of humour as well as tragedy, and Mackenzie’s portrayal of the ever-changing loyalties of young girls, along with their rivalries and bids for alpha status are quite frighteningly accurate. Underpinning all of this is the yearning the girls feel for their mothers, adding pathos to the daily life described.
The seemingly small events of Etta’s daily life are set against the backdrop of the Japanese occupation of China, creating a sense of constant tension and fear (again, recalling Harper Lee’s use of racial tension to underpin the initial action of To Kill a Mockingbird); this is a period of history and an aspect of WWII which I didn’t know about before, but Mackenzie’s references to it give plenty of contextual detail without turning In a Land of Paper Gods into a history textbook. The final act of the novel and its use of historical detail is a big change and a fascinating one. I felt pleasantly submerged in the place and time period; Mackenzie’s writing beautifully depicts both in a realistic but artistic way.
Basically, I really enjoyed In a Land of Paper Gods. It uses its child protagonist to tremendous effect, making the reader feel sad, amused and like you want to give the characters a hug all at the same time.