After half a lifetime's parting, this year I reunited with Terry Pratchett.
As a teenager, I wasn't a huge fan of the Discworld novels - no, let me refine that. I lapped up any Discworld book that focused on Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, who respectively, taught me about psychology and innuendo. The series I truly loved though was the Bromeliad (Truckers, Diggers and Wings), the epic tale of a community of nomes who have their faith destroyed and then rebuilt, in a kinder, wiser way. While the series probably lent strength to my growing skepticism about religious belief, it taught me a lot about people.
Last summer I picked up a copy of 'The Amazing Maurice', and rediscovered Pratchett. And then, joy of joys, I met Tiffany Aching - with Roald Dahl's Matilda, one of the most human, most likable, most entertaining and wisest characters you'll ever come across. You can learn a lot from Tiffany Aching, and it won't hurt a bit.
I find there's little point in trying to describe what a Pratchett book is 'about' - I doubt a synopsis of a storyline will ever convince a non-believer to pick one up. However, I think you can summarise the general feelings a Pratchett book will evoke - alongside the wry and occasionally broad humour, there's a deep, deep love of our humankind with all its foibles, feeble- and narrowmindedness, and latent glory.
I have to admit, I didn't go into Nation with any particular expectations. I finished it this afternoon in tears. As is my wont, after reading it I went in search of reviews.
The reviewer in the Independent seemed to hit the "point" of the book, but miss the magic:
The idea of starting out afresh on a tiny island has brought out the best in fiction writers from Defoe to William Golding. Children relish these stories, but in this novel Pratchett is writing for everyone. Mau's Dawkins-type monologues as he questions all his supernatural beliefs go on a bit at times, but also point the way to Pratchett's central belief in the power of science and reason to liberate – if left in the right hands. True to form, Mau's island ends up incorporated by the Royal Society as a haven for visiting scholars.
Odd anthropological insights – sometimes backed up by jaunty footnotes – combine with fantasy as Pratchett introduces tree-climbing octopuses and beer that has to be spat in to make it potable. There are plenty of jokes. Aware that local gossip is trying to pair her off with Mau, Daphne thinks "It was like being in a Jane Austen novel, but one with far less clothing".
Frank Cottrell Boyce in the Guardian though (one of my favourite YA reviewers) seems to have found what I did
Nation has profound, subtle and original things to say about the interplay between tradition and knowledge, faith and questioning. During his initiation ritual, for instance, Mau discovers that the island isn't haunted at all, and that his dad and uncle have already been there and left supplies and a canoe for him. On one level this means the ancient ritual is a piece of empty theatre. In another sense, though, it's a rite of passage that is supposed to teach him self-reliance and courage. In fact, it gives Mau a much more profound knowledge - of how much his dad loves him and how valued he is by his society. Without the theatre of the ghosts, he wouldn't experience the reality of the love.
Pratchett has visited this theme before, in the Bromeliad trilogy, where a group of nomes have developed an obviously stupid religion based on a magic stone, "the Thing", and a belief in "the Heavens". It's ridiculous, but it turns out to be sort of true.
Ridiculous, but sort of true. Pratchett in a nutshell.
p.s. Late Pratchett seems to feature less knowing footnotes. Although they delighted me as a teen, as an adult I am finding this to be A Good Thing.