New Hokkaido, by James McNaughton (Victoria University Press, 2015), 224 pp., $30
Imagine a world where Japan did not attack Pearl Harbour in 1941, but rather continued its gradual accumulation by invasion of smaller states; where the 1980s see an alliance of the Soviet Union and Japan controlling mainland Europe, as well as most of Asia, and several other nations, including New Zealand. This is the world of debut novelist James McNaughton’s New Hokkaido.
The alternative history (or, as this novel’s blurb refers to it, ‘counter-factual history’) genre has a long pedigree of intriguing speculation. Often shackled with science fiction and fantasy under the heading of speculative fiction, it is frequently unfairly ghettoised in much the same way as these other two genres have been. Yet there have been many fine works in the field, from Keith Roberts’ moving Pavane (set in a Europe where the Reformation never took place) through the whimsical ‘Lord Darcy’ stories of Randall Garrett (delightful parodies of Sherlock Holmes set in a twentieth-century Anglo-French Plantagenet empire).
Understandably, these ‘what-if’ stories have occasionally used some turning point in World War II as a moment of departure from our real-world history. Such works include Len Deighton’s SS-GB, Hilary Bailey’s memorable The Fall of Frenchy Steiner, and, perhaps most notably, Philip K. Dick’s masterful The Man in the High Castle.
While the idea of tweaking real history to provide a readymade setting for a novel may seem facile, in reality the opposite is true. The author must have a thorough working knowledge of the points leading up to their change in timeline, and also a full comprehension of how the world as a whole would have altered as a result. Both these things are vital in order to provide a coherent setting. This is especially the case since readers of alternative-history novels are quite often deeply versed in historical studies themselves, and in order to suspend disbelief, the tale’s background continuity must be seamless. The author needs either to thoroughly research and logically question any change to history they propose, or to make the novel’s backdrop so vague as to defy analysis. Above all this, they must similarly be able to extrapolate a believable society resulting from the changed course of history upon which their story can hang.
While it would be unfair to compare a new author’s work with the likes of Deighton or Dick, it is fair to see how well the novel and its setting stand up on their own merits. On these terms, they both have clear strengths and considerable weaknesses. Undoubtedly, the novel’s greatest strength is its narrative flow, which rattles along. The book is a real page-turner, and one does find oneself pondering the mystery death which lies at the heart of the book – the who and why of the crime, and what part, if any, several of the story’s protagonists played in it.
Often in New Hokkaido, however, the ‘why?’ element asked by the reader relates to the setting of the story. Too many of the strings of the historical backdrop are either visible or loosely tied. Chris’s family background and employment, for example, would make him a suspect character to any New Zealander actively working against the Japanese, yet as a central figure in the narrative he quickly and easily finds out about various resistance groups around the country. If he can do that, so could the authorities – and given the ruthless nature of the occupying forces, they would, and the resistance groups (shown throughout to be largely ramshackle and naïve) would quickly cease to exist. Much of the characterisation of members of these groups also seems a little too stereotyped and sketchy – the redneck racist, the pisshead bogan, the rugby player out for a scrap, the old guy who spent too long in prison – though perhaps this could be read as deliberate satire. If so, it falls slightly flat. Some fleshing out of these characters into more rounded figures would have avoided possible cliché. This fault is, however, thankfully relieved to a large extent by the author’s keen ability to show these groups as both pathetic and yet still dangerous in their own limited way, and by his eye for wry detail – notably early in the book, in his knowing wink at the social mores of young Kiwis at their first dance.
If the response of the Japanese authorities to Kiwi resistance seems odd, so too does the attitude of the Kiwis to Japanese authoritarianism. The occupying forces and their effect on New Zealand remains a thin veneer, while the attitude of the Kiwis towards the Japanese is little stronger than our real-world New Zealand attitudes towards the country’s colonial past (to which the novel’s characterisation might be a deliberate allegory). Chris several times realises that what he is doing could see him incarcerated, tortured and ‘disappeared’, yet these very real fears are almost treated as a passing whim. We get very little indication that such potential disasters mean much to him, or to other characters in the book. However we are presented with graphic evidence from Chris’s ferry crossing to show that these threats are palpable ones.
It is one of the book’s nice touches that there is a direct symmetry between the terror of the two ferry journeys in the novel. In both cases we are plunged into bloody violence, which is largely (though not completely) absent elsewhere in the book. The ferry becomes a microcosm within the country, where niceties are stripped away and suddenly it becomes all too clearly ‘us’ and ‘them’.
But it is also on the ferry that one particular ‘us and them’ boundary is stripped away completely, in the form of the first sexual encounter between Chris and Hitomi. This is handled well, though its tone seems initially out of place within the flow of the book. It also leaves a dangling thread, which is never cleared up adequately, namely Chris’s suspicion that the deck where the tryst occurred had been deliberately left empty.
The revolt during the second ferry crossing, a major event in the narrative (though in many ways a lengthy aside, in that it has little bearing on the crime at the heart of the novel), raises a further query about the background setting of the story. It’s hard to suspend disbelief over a Japanese-dominated Pacific basin where Australia remains a free country, seemingly loosely tied to a pauper Britain and isolationist United States. According to this scenario, little would have prevented Japan from having swept in through the huge open back door of the country’s northeast, but it’s highly unlikely that such a strategic country would have been left unoccupied. Sure, it could happen, but it’s so unlikely that it brings the reader up short.
The question ‘why?’ can also be raised over the seemingly gratuitous presence of the ghost of ‘Johnny’ Lennon as a personification of the protagonist’s conscience and innermost thoughts. Lennon’s presence in New Zealand is based on a real event in the singer’s early life when he could have gone with his father to settle in the South Pacific; yet in this tale we are asked to believe that impoverished British migrants would travel to Japanese-occupied New Zealand – where Pākehā are treated very much as third-class citizens – rather than to friendly, neutral Australia. It just doesn’t add up. Lennon’s presence feels contrived and detracts from the novel. If the author wants a tangible alter-ego for Chris’s internal monologue, fine, but creating a fictional Kiwi music legend would have been better than shoehorning Lennon into the story.
Don’t get me wrong, New Hokkaido has many good points. It’s well presented (thanks in part to the fine cover artwork of Rodney Smith), and more importantly is an enjoyable mystery, a rattling yarn set in an intriguing and imaginative alternative timeline – McNaughton clearly has his chops when it comes to being able to write. Much of the novel’s narrative is both believable and chilling: the unsettling Kafkaesque nature of Chri’s interactions with the police rings true, and the employment hierarchy and treatment of the occupied New Zealanders is well thought out and presented. His dialogue, too, is well written. The revolt on the ferry is also both gripping and visceral. Disbelief has to be suspended just a notch too high, however, for it to be truly describable as a fine book. This still has all the hallmarks of an early novel, with a lot that could be improved upon. If the author can tighten up those distractions, however, he may well become a talent to be reckoned with.
JAMES DIGNAN is an English-born freelance writer, musician, and artist who has lived for many years in Dunedin, where he studied psychology at Otago University. His reviews, mainly of art exhibitions, are regularly published in the Otago Daily Times.