Challinor’s historical novels are usually cram-packed with female characters who are the books’ main agents, and From the ashes is no exception. Set in the 1950s, it is one of the titles published recently about this interesting era of New Zealand history: post-war, a time of urban drift, the Mazengarb report bemoaning juvenile delinquency and a ghastly normalised racism.
Ana moves to Auckland with her family from their Hawkes’ Bay farm, forced to move through the frailty of her father in law and the stubbornness of her husband. Allie is suffering from the loss of a child and post-traumatic stress from a workplace fire, her mum Colleen has two other daughters, Dolly and Pauline, and an ageing mum, Rose. Allie’s husband, Sonny, has a high-living sister, Polly, whose daughter Gina lives with Sonny and Polly’s mum, Awhi. Three other families from the Hawkes’ Bay are in the mix: those of Kura and Wiki, neighbours living in squalid houses that are the only ones they can secure, and Kathleen, wealthy, living with her three unhappy children and a maid, who is mates with Polly, and married to a pilot who is often away.
So, you get the idea: all the families come together through various plots – Kathleen frequents the department store where Allie works, Pauline starts dating Kura’s son, Ana moves in next door to Colleen and her husband, Sid, etc, etc. Through the plots we experience 1950s society – where dementia is little understood and inhumanly treated, where gender identity is totally misunderstood and mismanaged, where women are undervalued, often marginalised and have their work opportunities prescribed by their personal circumstances, and where being Māori often meant you were unwelcome and/or unfairly treated. It is a country where some in the cities are buying refrigerators and washing machines and others are slipping through the mud to get to the outside loo.
I won’t give anything of the plots away, as they entwine and are often surprising, although I will say that some of the characters’ problems are addressed by women coming together and taking charge of their own circumstances. Although From the ashes can be read as a stand-alone novel , there is plenty to delight Challinor’s fans – Allie is from the 2007 novel Fire, Ana is a descendant of Tamar Deane from the Tamar trilogy, and a descendant of Wong Fu’s daughter, Bao, who we met in The cloud leopard’s daughter, makes an appearance. Challinor’s history is robust – she has a section at the end confirming which bits are historical, which fictional and which her own mix of the two. And the novel finishes with some unanswered questions, which will further please her fans who will see another trilogy (at least) on the way!