The burning river is a great piece of dystopian fiction, set in an Aotearoa that has been devastated by global warming and pollution. Van, Hana and her daughter Kahu set out on a quest to try and bargain for place of safety, a “place to shelter and then stand.”
Van is a swamp dweller, a whāngai; taken in by Matewai’s people, the Te Repo, when his people were killed, and he had to flee. For the inhabitants of the various areas in the region live on constant alert, knowing what keeps them safe is trade and shaky alliances, and that “there’s always people coming down from the north.”
Van and Matewai’s son Rau are grieving for Rau’s wife, when they encounter a ‘fetch’; a young woman who has come from the Whaea who live on elevated land, and who have negotiated a ‘gap’ so Van, Rau and the fetch, Kahu, can travel safely through the valley lands fiercely guarded by the Scarpers. Van has been to the Whaea place before, when he took part in the Summer’s Day ritual and met Hana, who has been occupying his thoughts ever since. This sets the scene for him to find out more about himself and take on the quest, along with Hana and Kahu, to try and save the Whaea.
The burning river is an atmospheric, tense and nervous read. You are transported to a strange but familiar land. It is Aotearoa, with familiar bush species and familiar bird species, but where ‘the burners’ slash and burn – and we see and smell their fires, and the swamps are full of dangerous biting insects, presumably because global warming has allowed diseases and their vectors to flourish here, where people scrape by with no modern technology, and where Van makes a living mining and working with ancient plastic.
Many of the human groups are matriarchal, maybe reflecting what a mess the blokes made. And the predominant culture is Māori, probably reflecting what a mess the colonisers made, but also the fact that when people are forced to live by their wits, the indigenous in any land will have the edge. And although the groups are separate and antagonistic – there is a strong relationship between the Whaea and Te Repo, a history to explain their antagonism yet a connection that drives Whaea to desire being buried in the swamp, and to hold Summer’s Day rituals, possibly to avoid in-breeding in the group.
People in this novel have to take care of the basics: “water and waste” – keeping one pure and the other separate; making sure you can negotiate, or if that fails protect yourselves; make sure you always have something to trade: items, skills, knowledge; making sure you are courteous and understand the ‘others’ customs; and, know your lineage, your ‘waters’, so you know who you can extend the group to and trust if greater dangers emerge: “The whole world is new. We’ve all got to adapt.” The burning river gives us an uncertain and recognisable future, as well as an optimistic ending that almost allows you to forget that “there’s always people coming down from the north.” A great read.