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Wednesday, March 6, 2013

'New Guinea Moon' by Kate Constable

Received from the Publisher

From the BLURB:

Julie has grown up not knowing her father, with just the occasional Christmas card and the knowledge that he flies planes for a charter company in New Guinea. When she comes to stay with him one long summer, she learns to appreciate not only her long-lost father and his love of flying, but also New Guinea itself and the people she meets. An awkward romance with a young expat contrasts with her growing attraction to the son of a local coffee plantation owner. And, left to her own devices much of the time, Julie learns to rely on herself and gain her own independence. A tragedy and then a mystery leave her reeling, but force her to evaluate what she really wants out of life.

It’s December 1974, and after tensions reach boiling-point between Julie and her mother, Caroline suggests she spend the Christmas break with her father in Papua New Guinea. 

Julie has not seen Tony McGinty, her father, since she was a child. She has sent him sparse cards, but she knows nothing about him except that he lives in Mt Hagen, flying planes for Highland Air Charters.

When Julie touches down in Papua New Guinea, the heat is stifling and her bags are promptly stolen – only to be saved by a charismatic local who is home from his Australian school, Simon Murphy. Simon’s father, Patrick, was one of the first ‘Europeans’ (white people) to pave their way on the island – he went on to marry a local woman, and now runs a successful plantation, though he’s getting on in years and it looks as though Simon will soon be taking over.

Julie and Simon travel together in a small plane to Mt Hagen, where Julie once again meets the father she has never known. Tony quickly introduces Julie to his island ‘family’ – his boss is Allan ‘Curry’ Crabtree, whose wife is Barbara and they have two children, the young Nadine and Ryan, who is Julie’s age – all home from their Australian boarding schools for the holidays.

The Crabtree’s seem to be the centre of European socializing on the island. All the chartered pilots who work for Allan come to their house for festivities and parties, and Barbara is self-appointed matriarch overseeing all.

But while Julie is taken-aback by the beauty of the island, the sweetness of the locals and her tentative new relationship with Tony . . .  she is also seeing an ugly underbelly to the European ‘settlers’. They have servants they call ‘meri’ and ‘haus boi’ – white expats don’t mix with locals, and want very little to do with them at all. And talk of independence stirs the air – people like Barbara Crabtree are convinced there will be riots in the streets, and Europeans murdered in their sleep. 

Just when Julie feels herself settling into the beauty of Papua New Guinea, and envisioning her life with Tony post-independence, tragedy strikes – and Julie questions everything she knows about right and wrong, family and confidence in herself.

‘New Guinea Moon’ is the new young adult novel from Australian author, Kate Constable. 

Kate Constable lived in Papua New Guinea from the age of six, when her father was a pilot on the island. She lived there for a number of years before she and her family relocated back to Australia. Knowing this now, it explains a lot of how ‘New Guinea Moon’ is such a thoughtfully detailed book, effortlessly capturing a time and place that at once reads so foreign and out-of-time, but tangible in many other respects.

Going into this book, I knew absolutely nothing about Papua New Guinea or its colonisation by Germany, the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth of Australia until independence from Australia in 1975.  I was actually quite shocked to learn that Australia had such roots in colonisation, so learnt from Britain, no doubt. It was an unsettling realization that Australia had such a history, and so very recently too! That’s why I was happy that in the book, Constable uses Julie’s outsider eyes to comment on the inequality she sees and feels disturbed by. Julie’s mother, Caroline, is portrayed as a leftist feminist and she is most certainly looking on Papua New Guinea and the Aussie expats with a thought to what her mother would think . . . but it speaks a lot to youthful intolerance that Julie so wonderfully articulates what she sees is wrong in this colonized society. Particularly because Julie has arrived in December 1974, and murmurings of independence are rife in the air and electrifying the people, locals and expats alike;  

‘They’ll kick us all out. This time next year, there won’t be any Europeans left, apart from the God-botherers.’ 
‘It’s the end of an era . . . it’ll never be the same.’ 
It’s odd, Julie thinks. There is anger in the way they speak, bitter resentment at their dismissal from the scene. But there is a wistfulness too, nostalgia for the lives they are still leading, as if they see themselves as ghosts already; they miss living here and they haven’t even left yet. Did the Romans sit around talking like this, before their empire fell?

Julie’s thoughts are also informed by the two families she comes to know on the island. The Crabtrees are well-to-do Aussies who have made their wealth with Highland Air Charters. Julie becomes uneasily close to Ryan Crabtree, a boy her age who seems to be in two minds – he once spoke fluent Pidgin, taught to him by the meri who helped raise him – but now he looks upon the locals with haughty disdain and seems to be allying with his mother on wanting to leave and live in Australia when independence comes. 

Then there’s Simon Murphy, the twenty-something handsome man who helps Julie get to Mt. Hagen. Simon is, quite literally, in two worlds – with an Australian father who was one of the first Europeans to settle on the island, but also with a New Guinean mother. Simon welcomes independence, and feels a duty to his home to return from his Australian studies and start running his father’s plantation business, contributing to the local economy and possibly looking into local politics. Simon is not one of the Europeans, rather he is seen as a ‘local’ in the eyes of the expats – as such, Simon sees the injustice of colonization and is excited by the prospect of his country standing on its own two feet.

There is a tinge of romance to ‘New Guinea Moon’ – though it pales in comparison to the far more interesting questions Constable raises about white ‘superiority’, and her provoking thoughts on Australia’s colonialist past. 

At times I wished there was more of a focus on Tony and Julie’s relationship – but I actually thought Julie grew closer to her mother, Caroline, while she was away from her. It was when Julie started asking herself what she thought of independence and Australia’s role in Papua New Guinea that I think Julie started to appreciate the different world-view her mother had equipped her with. By contrast, Tony is a sweet and shy man, never quite at-ease around his daughter . . . which is a shame; because I think there was a little more room for father/daughter bonding in this book. 

I really, thoroughly enjoyed ‘New Guinea Moon’. It is an unsettling book that beautifully and meticulously captures a dubious moment in Australia’s colonialist past. Papua New Guinea of the 1970s is magnificently evoked and seen through the eyes of a thoughtful and maturing young woman in Julie. There’s romance, tragedy and a deep respect for a wondrous country and its enduring people . . . 


New Guinea Moon is published by Allen & Unwin and is now available at all good bookshops and online.


  1. This sounds like a beautiful story and what a lovely review, Danielle. I'll be sure to read this soon.


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