Thursday, February 5, 2009

Nationbuilding

I borrowed a colleague's Odyssey-committee copy of Terry Pratchett's Nation, loaded it up on my mp3 player and took it to Midwinter. (I've got to admit that the whole carrying eight discs on one little device is extemely handy, if only its battery life were a tad longer.) I'm a relative newcomer to Pratchett and Discworld, but I loved the audiobook of Wintersmith. Nation has nothing whatsoever to do with Discworld, although its heroine, Ermingarde/Daphne, shares Tiffany Aching's sense of right and wrong and her sticktoitiveness.

A young man, Mau, has spent a month on an island near his home island somewhere in the South Pelagic Ocean, building a canoe and preparing for the ceremony that will initiate him into adulthood. He is paddling back home. A young woman, Ermingarde, is 138th in line to an alternative Victorian-era British throne, and she is sailing on the Sweet Judy to join her father (who, unbeknownst to either of them, has ascended to the throne -- blame the Russian flu) at a major port in the South Pelagic Ocean. A tsunami strikes and both are washed up on the shores of Mau's island, home of the Nation.

Ermingarde -- who takes the opportunity to rename herself Daphne -- and a mouthy parrot are the sole survivors from the Sweet Judy (or so she thinks), while no one on the island survived the wave. Cultural clashes ensue, and both Daphne and Mau (and the growing number of tsunami survivors who make their way to the island) thoughfully examine their own histories and prejudices on the way to creating a new Nation. Because it's by Pratchett, much hilarity ensues (on the grossology side, think about how you might milk a pig to get some sustenance for a baby; on the sophisticated humor side, think of two people communicating who don't share a language); but there's an underlying message of what makes a community that is deftly delivered. The ending is delightful all by itself.

Narrator Stephen Briggs deftly delivers the whole package. He reads with a dry, droll Englishness of barely suppressed irony that warms up when he describes Mau's or Daphne's baby steps towards understanding. The tsunami's castaways are distinctly created through accents and vocal registers. When the English arrive en masse, there is ample opportunity for Monty Python-esque twits. There is a present-day afterword that he reads with a lovely, calm teacherly quality, setting just the right tone. Briggs is a very engaging narrator, who has certainly escorted me laughing into Pratchett's worlds. I'd listen to him again.

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