I was quite blown away by meeting Esther recently. A New Zealand classic previously unknown to me, I am not Esther should be more widely recognised outside of New Zealand. An exploration of self, of identity, of religion, of family, of friendship, that is also a gripping page-turner.
I am not Esther is the absorbing tale of 14 year old Kirby Greenland. Kirby lives in Auckland with her somewhat disorganised mother. It has always been just the two of them, and Kirby has grown up to be a competent young woman. Sometimes she is forced to be too competent.
She was fun, my dizzy flake of a mother. I loved her passionately and I didn't care that I was the one who had to organise the running of our flat, who had to write out cheques for the bills, make sure she didn't spend all the money before the next payday, get the washing done, drag her off to buy groceries. 'They're so boring, Kirby!' she'd cry.
Very soon Kirby's world dissolves. Her mother's behaviour becomes even more bizarre.
There were two weeks between when school broke up and Christmas. Mum was worse than dizzy, she was frenetic. She dragged me and Gemma all over Auckland looking for just the right Christmas decorations. She went to parties, she worked, she pinched the plastic money card when I wasn't looking and hung round in town giving money to people who looked desperate.
Her mother Ellen decides to go to Africa to work with refugees, and so she takes Kirby to stay with relatives that Kirby never knew existed. Enough of a shock perhaps. But her relatives are members of a very strict religious order, and live a rather strict, spartan life in Wanganui. There is no television in the house, no radio, no mirrors, no newspapers, and no book except the bible. In a unique riff on the classic orphaned children's book heroine Kirby is renamed Esther, and is thrust in a totally foreign way of life.
I had to find myself before it was too late and I vanished, worn away under a welter of prayers, rules and restrictions.
Kirby can't understand her new life, or why her mother would abandon her this way. Kirby and her story really stayed with me. I have one little quibble with the plot that doesn't make to sense to me, well it's probably a major quibble, but I've been mullingover this book for days now. Not something I often do.
Fleur Beale is a prominent New Zealand author, with over 30 books under her belt, who sadly still needs to find other work to supplement her income as an author. She helps other writers asses their manuscripts and is a relief teacher. I'm so glad that I bought my copy of Esther last time we were in New Zealand. Fleur based I am not Esther on a former student- a member of a cult who wanted to go on to university and who was kicked out of his family and church. His story bubbled away in the background before it came into life as part of I am not Esther.
In the words of our immortal Molly Meldrum, do yourself (and Fleur Beale) a favour and go buy a copy of I am not Esther (fishpond do free worldwide shipping). And then read it.