If you ask most Kiwis to describe New Zealand, exotic and mysterious possibly wouldn’t be the first two words that spring to mind (and if you live in Christchurch, words like cold, grey and shaky are far higher up the list right now). Yet in a significant number of books I’ve read recently, funny old EnZed is frequently used as a sort of mystical faraway destination to represent something far removed from the humdrum routine of life in wherever the novel is set: an escape, a foreign country so different from home where, clearly, anything is possible.
In Dawn French’s A Tiny Bit Marvellous, for example, the pivotal catalyst character who arrives and throws everything into chaos is none other than Noel from New Zealand, oh so attractive partly because of his exotic foreign allure. In Natasha Cooper’s A Poisoned Mind a character flees to New Zealand to hide from the police (clearly these people have no idea that we are quite a SMALL country …). And in Susan Wittig Albert’s mystery series featuring a problem-solving Beatrix Potter, one character’s father “had refused to become an English gentleman, and do the things Grandmama had wanted him to do, so he had run away to New Zealand to be a sheep farmer …” (The Tale of Cuckoo Brow Wood).
For those who know Kate Atkinson’s gorgeous Jackson Brodie, or who saw the Prime TV show on Wednesday night, you will know that part of his backstory is that his ex-wife wants to take his daughter to New Zealand – obviously symbolically as well as literally representing the ends of the earth.
This is not a new development, however: a rather glorious article from the June 12th 1921 New York Times profiles author Jane Mander, and makes this statement about New Zealand as being:
… a country rich in fictional material, dowered by nature with scenic backgrounds of surpassing loveliness and fascination and peopled by men and women of varied and interesting types, where personality is prone to make its own way regardless of conventions, and problems of life and conduct take on new shapes and colours.
So perhaps I shouldn’t be so startled (and amused) when I am turning the pages of a perfectly believable thriller or romance-mystery or urban fantasy novel, and come across some character who daydreams of running away to the ends of the earth, to far-away and mysterious and above all exotic New Zealand.