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Novel set near Rotorua, New Zealand – plus author location piece

27th June 2017

See you in September by Charity Norman, novel set near Rotorua, New Zealand.

I have always enjoyed Charity Norman’s novels (you can find them here) and she always chooses an interesting subject for each book. See you in September is no exception.

Cassy’s family waves her and her boyfriend, Hamish, off for a Summer trip to New Zealand. She is part way through her law degree and is having a few doubts about the course her life is taking. Does she really want to go for the high pressure job, with long hours but good money? Her parents have encouraged her to take this particular path and are happy for her to have a couple of carefree weeks before she has to buckle down to the final year, starting in September. But in the car to the airport there is the hint that Cassy is having serious doubts about her future. A slightly fraught departure ensues.

Novel set near Rotorua

Our original ARC, together with the published cover

Partway into the trip Cassy and Hamish hit a real low point in their relationship and she is whisked off by a van full of up-beat and jolly people who take her to a remote encampment by the Lake at Mount Tarawera. She can, of course, leave at any time… at junctures the author slides in snippets from The Cult Leader’s Manual by Cameron Allsop, a several stage guide to ensnaring new acolytes, just to underline the gradual process of entrapment.

Cassy is bright, she takes the community for what it is, set in the most tranquil and idyllic location away from the horrors of the world. The members have formed a community with a laudable moral and spiritual ethos that is very seductive, all under the watchful and caring eye of Justin Calvin – a listener to whom the acolytes are in thrall. It is also no coincidence that the members are named after places around the world…Rome, Cairo, Aden, Gaza…

Just how deeply involved does Cassy become?

Most of us are unlikely to ever find ourselves in the position of becoming enmeshed in a cult and I think the author has done a great job in showing how the tentacles of entrapment slowly take hold. Most community members have place names and it is hard as a reader to quite get a grip on who is who, the members are an amorphous mass of people – this demonstrates just how powerful our own names are to give us identity. Lose your name and personal items, and you lose your ‘self’.  Members’ thinking is gradually changed too because no negativity is allowed. Negative thoughts, however, help us to process our understanding of the world; take that out of the equation and we can only function on half the cylinders. Already, perceptions are changing… As time passes it becomes clear how seductive the rituals and the group mentality become, and how closing off the outside world aids in institutionalising the individuals within the community, leaving them fearful of functioning outside in the horrible big wide world. People are taken back to childlike dependency and innocence.

This is the second novel this year that I have read about the seductive lure of the ‘cult’ (“The Girls” by Emma Cline, set in California).

I found this read really gripping, well written with a very interesting subject at the heart. The end was a little drawn out for me it lost its punchy pace, which however picked up again towards the end.

And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music” Friedrich Nietzsche

Tina for the TripFiction Team

Over to Charity for our #TalkingLocationWith… feature, Lake Tarawera, Rotorua, New Zealand.

If you’ve flown into Auckland and intend to explore New Zealand, you’ll almost certainly make a stop at Rotorua. The sulphurous smell and clouds of steam are a startling reminder that here the earth’s crust is thin. Many travellers press on southwards; but if, like my protagonist Cassy, you’re persuaded to turn off the main road, you’ll find yourself in another world.

Lake Rotorua Photo: Vivienne Haldane

My family’s been visiting the Rotorua Lakes since our children were small. Eighteen lakes and three rivers provide magnificent fishing, swimming, white water rafting and tramping. The children used to spend whole days leaping off dizzyingly high cliffs into freezing water. For the less active (that’s me) there are hot springs, waterfalls and glorious natural beauty.

Lake Tarawera Photo: Vivienne Haldane

See You in September is about a self-sufficient community living on the shores of Lake Tarawera. This is the second largest of the Rotorua Lakes and has a fascinating history. On a blue-sky day, when water birds paddle calmly in the clear water, it seems intensely peaceful; but the landscape is dominated by the barren mass of a volcano, Mount Tarawera. To the local Maori people the mountain is sacred; its peak was once a burial ground. Legend has it that long ago a dreadful sorcerer, Tama-o-Hoi, lived here and preyed on travellers until a hero flung him into a chasm. There he was trapped for centuries, waiting to break free – to erupt.

Fast forward to the 1800s, when Victorian tourists flocked from around the world to visit the pink-and-white terraces at the foot of the volcano. Often called the eighth wonder of the world, these terraces were a natural phenomenon formed as silica-rich water flowed down a hillside. Maori became guides and boatmen, ferrying tourists across Tarawera. Wealth flowed in – but with it came alcohol and a change in the way of life.

Lake Rotorua Photo: Vivienne Haldane

In the early hours of 10th June 1886, everything changed. Mount Tarawera erupted with catastrophic violence, its pyroclastic flow obliterating the landscape. The thunder of eruption was heard hundreds of miles away. At least a hundred and twenty people died, and the terraces have never been seen again. Survivors described seeing the stars go out as the earth was hurled into the sky; some thought they were witnessing the end of the world.

If you’re nearby, do visit the buried village at Te Wairoa, New Zealand’s version of Pompeii. After modern-day tragedies there are often harrowing accounts of people phoning their families in their last moments. The Victorians were no different. Twenty-year-old Edwin Bainbridge, from Newcastle, wrote in his diary as he and others sat praying in the doomed hotel at Te Wairoa. He didn’t escape. It’s sobering to read his final written words:

This is the most awful moment of my life. I cannot tell when I may be called upon to meet my God. I am thankful that I find his strength sufficient for me. We are under heavy falls of volcanic…”

Lake Rotorua Photo: Vivienne Haldane

Legends abound in this region, but perhaps the strangest is the story of the phantom canoe. The most famous guide was a marvellous woman called Sophia Hinerangi. Days before the eruption she was guiding a party of tourists across Tarawera when they saw something impossible: a Maori war canoe gliding out of the early-morning mist, sunlight glinting on its paddles. It carried a double row of occupants, one rowing, the other standing, their heads decorated in feathers as though for burial. To Maori observers, these were the souls of the dead being ferried to the sacred mountain. They insisted that there was not, and never had been, a war canoe on Lake Tarawera.

You might assume this ghostly apparition was the product of a serious hangover, but it was seen by everyone aboard Sophia’s boat, including the six European tourists. A second group witnessed it later that day; one tourist even sketched it. The tohunga (priest) declared it to be an omen of disaster – a warning that the region would be overwhelmed. And eleven days later, the mountain exploded.

Lake Tarawera

Make of this what you will! There are various explanations, even a suggestion that an ancient, buried canoe might have been shaken out of the lakebed by volcanic activity. Who knows? Incidentally, Sophia survived and saved many lives during the night of the eruption.

Tarawera has it all: beauty, history, tragedy; hot springs, lush forests and a murderous volcano brooding over all. This is the place where the stars went out. Where better to set the story of a doomsday cult?

Thank you so much to Charity for such an interesting and insightful piece on the area! You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook and of course you can buy her book here

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