The Settling Earth, by Rebecca Burns

by Alison Stedman
Rebecca Burns has released a new collection of short stories – ten connected but standalone narratives based on the experience of British settlers in colonial New Zealand.  We are taken on a journey, from one character to the next, each making sense of their place as outsiders in an unfamiliar, surreal and, at times, hostile environment.  

There are no simple plot arcs or easy resolutions for these characters – they give us only a glimpse into their story and leave us wondering about their survival.  The normal wrestles with the startling as they struggle to build their new lives.  Some adapt, a little, but most will always be struggling, pursued by the culture and the monsters they left behind.  The story can be, at times, equal parts chilling and lovely.

The book closes with the only insider perspective we will find – a story written by guest Ngātiwai writer Shelly Davies, from the perspective of the only Māori character, observing these settlers, noticing what they do not notice, and thinking his own thoughts.  It is a strong way to finish – turning to the perspective of the only ‘insider’ in this otherwise strange environment, yet recognising his place as an outsider among the colonisers.

Here at Halfway Down the Stairs, we have always appreciated Rebecca Burns’ writing, having published no less than nine of her short stories.  In fact, one of the stories in this collection was first published on this site.  I wondered what it would be like to read a whole collection of stories, and whether she would succeed in pulling off the same strong feeling of profound experience that always seems to be present in her stories, wherever they are based.  

I was not disappointed.  The quality of Rebecca’s writing is beautiful, as ever, and I found myself making bookmarks in my thoughts, returning to phrases and lingering over passages.  There is a real feeling of truth and human experience, even in the specificity of each character and story:

Such small moments of tenderness in this upside down land, a little voice in Mrs Ellis’s head said.  What a place of hope and disappointment it is!  What had Mrs Gray said earlier?  That convention floats?  That it travels along with you, hiding in the luggage and trunks of the displaced, ready to ensnare you?

Moments like these were the climax of the story for me, summing up everything I was coming to learn:

No, here in this colony, there are opportunities, but our hearts are the same; they are still pulled and crushed, still open to hope.  Our flesh still yearns for the touch of someone long dead.  We just go through it at the bottom of the world.  Thank goodness God can still speak to us when we stand on our head.

As a New Zealander myself, I was naturally attentive to detail and the “local colour” required to pull off a book like this.  Apart from a few small errors here and there, this is nevertheless a book that felt true to me, written about my own environment (albeit a less modern version), and my own ancestors and forebears.

Published December 2014 by Odyssey Books
Alison Stedman is a senior editor at Halfway Down the Stairs. For staff biographies, click here.

© 2015, Alison Stedman