Catherine Robertson published Gabriel’s Bay in 2018 and What you wish for takes us back to the New Zealand coastal town, which is even more geographically unfettered this time – the story of the locals being bracketed not by that of a dog, but by that of a local moose!
As with Gabriel’s Bay, this novel is full of interweaving stories, some of them stories of the characters we got to know in the first novel, some of those who were then hovering in the wings. For example, solo mum Sydney is back front and centre, now firmly in a relationship with Kerry the UK import. Kerry’s parents, Bronagh and Douglas make an entrance, staying with local farmer Vic, in a B&B his wife set up before leaving him for a bloke in Aus. There are a group of environmentalists camped on his land too, who are infiltrated by a dodgy character called Loko, who Mac and Jacko’s daughter, Emma, has trailed back to Gabriel’s Bay. Dr Love is now retired but still active in the town, and he has been replaced by the delightful Dr Ashwin Ghadavi (Ash), who is smitten with Emma, who has decided to wade in to help the beautiful Devon get a girlfriend … well you get the idea … lots of characters, lots of storylines, all intertwined. There is a helpful cast list at the beginning if you get lost.
Amongst the kindness, joviality and the humour (I particularly liked the list of trendy baby clothes) there is some solid social commentary. The tension between environmentalists and traditional farming practices (“How could Vic blame him for lamenting that bare paddocks had usurped lush native bush?”), between small business and big business, between inherited prejudices and gender identity, between those who unintentionally fall pregnant and those desolate with unwanted childlessness, about the battles you must fight if you haven’t got much money, and about the vulnerability of children – little Madison isn’t back from Gabriel’s Bay but we get to know her Christmas buddy, Reuben: “And children were the most vulnerable of all.”
All the characters, apart from Loko who we don’t really get to know, are complicated and contradictory, and most evolve through the story, they are willing to learn, either from wise elders or from their own mistakes. What you wish for is another slice of Gabriel’s Bay life, funny, sad and dynamic. It deals with the social problems New Zealand is facing, including how easy it is to get swept along with a crowd you may disagree with but are nervous of publicly contradicting. You could read this as a standalone novel, but I was glad I had read Gabriel’s Bay first. And hopefully we will get to return another day!