August by Bernard Beckett
August is Bernard Beckett’s second venture into adult fiction. He is best known as an award-winning author of young adult fiction, but with his latest project – a ‘metaphysical novel’ that covers similar philosophical territory to his 2006 bestseller Genesis (winner of the Young Adult Fiction NZ Post Book Awards 2007, the Ester Glen Award 2007, and the Prix Sorcières Young Adult award in 2010) – he seems to be aiming to straddle such genre divides.
Set in a world where the Holy Council governs the inhabitants of a walled city and outside heathens reign, the setting is an alternative present or future (albeit an archaically-inspired one). We begin inside the action of a car crash; and inside the wreck we meet Tristan and Grace, two young outcasts who are injured, disoriented and facing an uncertain fate.
Relatively straightforward in structure, August is broken into three parts: The Fall, The Temptation and First Light. The three acts stretch over a single night as the two near strangers – an ex-scholarship student from the privileged St Augustine school and an ex-convent orphan forced into a life of prostitution outside the city walls – recite their intersecting stories in a bid to make it through the night. Or so it seems on the surface. As the tales of their two lives unravel the horrific truth behind their situation is revealed.
At the centre of this novel lies an exploration of power and freedom. Children are the subject of human experiments and religious brainwashing, and their struggle is one of going against the grain. August is neatly crafted, even if, at times, it feels a little too guided and perhaps slightly off-pitch for an adult audience. Nonetheless, Beckett explores his topic with pared-back language and a page-turning ease that will appeal to readers looking for a compelling read that seeks to explore some of the driving characteristics of human nature.
Emily Kiddell is from Readings St Kilda.