Rotoroa is the story of three quite different people who all end up in the same place for a while. The time is significant: New Zealand in the 1950s, post-war, emerging rock and roll, six o’clock swills, the bridge going up in Auckland and mushroom clouds appearing over atolls in the South Pacific.
Lorna is a young woman who is not used to making her own decisions: “people didn’t usually ask her opinion”, and who easily falls into religion along with her parents – her mother with a bad back, and her father prone to bouts of shell shock. Religion offers Lorna an identity of sorts, even if it is as one of the lesser gender. She realises late in the novel that “Quite a bit of her life so far had been spent in rooms with stacks of spare chairs.” When her naivety leads to a teenage pregnancy, Lorna’s life choices reduce even further.
The Salvation Army seems to offer Lorna the chance of a relationship and a role in life. She is drawn to other options, e.g. the new rock and roll “Get ready it said. Something was about to start”, but she opts for security and ends up serving in the Army’s facility for alcoholic men on Rotoroa Island along with her husband, Paul.
Jim is an alcoholic with awful memories, a gambling addiction and a wife and children to feel guilty about. He steals to fund both his addictions and will say anything anyone wants to hear to be left alone so he can get another drink to dull his senses. His life and portrayal in the novel is a blur, with the women around him in focus and unable to help. He too ends up on Rotoroa, attending AA meeting and church services occasionally, tending the gardens under Paul’s supervision, and experiencing the anti-climax of fishing: “the pleasure of eating it would be tainted by the kill”. Jim has lost control of his life, with decisions, sometimes literally, decided by the flip of a coin.
Katherine is an older woman who is leading a full life as a journalist and author, she has travelled widely and is a “time traveller”, like those in the rest home in which Lorna spends time serving, the residents’ memories amazing the young cadet. Katherine has been writing a series of articles on the Rotoroa facility, noticing the changes in its regimes, and starting to feel the isolation of the men to be part of their problem, feeling they need to be connected to the outside world. She suggests the next article be written from the point of view of the women in the men’s lives, a suggestion that is promptly relegated to the women’s pages.
You feel for all three main protagonists: Jim, whose faith is in the power of alcohol to help him forget his life, Katherine who we realise is coming to a time of frailty, and young Lorna, whose occasional feelings of the swell of individuality are easily calmed.
Katherine’s faith is different from Lorna’s: “I always think that kind of beauty lifts us above our own suffering”, she takes solace in nature and in those moments when she knows she has been blessed, such as when seeing orcas in the sea off the Coromandel coast. Lorna has a received faith, “‘My joy is in abandoning myself to Him’. She had noticed that the other female cadets talked like that” – she worries that God might know exactly what she is thinking. Lorna isn’t totally naive, she delivers a sermon to the patients on the island, talking of how it is not just they who are supervised, we are all supervised, all monitored and controlled. She feels her insignificance: “The only way she could avoid saying anything wrong was to say nothing, but that meant going unrepresented.”
Rotoroa is a beautifully written snapshot of a transition time in New Zealand history, and of the transition in people’s lives; into old age, away from opportunity, into possible futures. It is understated and powerful and I loved it.