In a Land of Paper Gods opens in 1940 whilst Etta, aged 10, is attending a school for the children of missionaries – a boarding school that enables their parents to continue with their work of introducing Christianity to the Chinese without having children to look after.
Etta’s childhood is an unusual one, and she seems trapped in a strange limbo between two vastly different cultures, never fully belonging to either of them. Initially raised in the Chinese province where her parents seek to convert the local populace, Etta learns Chinese and begins to understand (as much as she can at that age) the local customs. She even has a Chinese name – Ming-Mei, meaning bright and beautiful. At the age of 6, she is transported to the English speaking Lushan School, leaving everything she has known up to that point behind, her early years becoming almost irrelevant.
Possibly as a result of her exposure to the idea of divine callings, Etta believes that she has been chosen as a prophetess. She quickly shares this revelation with the girls in her dorm, thus forming the Prophetess Club. But what starts out as some harmless fun has dire consequences, despite the good intentions.
Set against the backdrop of the Second World War, Etta’s situation becomes increasingly tense as Japanese forces move into China, and she and the other pupils are eventually sent to an internment camp for the remainder of the war.
Mackenzie perfectly captures the voices of pre-teen girls throughout the novel – the friendships and the (often unintentional) cruelty of young girls is successfully brought to life here. And Etta is a wonderful character. She is a daydreamer and lets her imagination run away with her, and more often than not she ends up in trouble because of it. Etta has some difficulty fitting in with the other girls, and I felt sorry for her even when I knew that it was her own actions that landed her in various sticky situations. The others are quick to join in with her schemes, yet equally quick to deny all knowledge when things go awry, leaving Etta solely culpable.
In a Land of Paper Gods can be considered a coming of age story as we see Etta grow from 10 to 15, on the cusp of adulthood and with so much potential for her adult life. I wonder what happens to her after the story ends, although I’m sure that whatever path her life takes, she’ll manage to make some kind of mischief for herself, despite being older and wiser.
The novel is likely to draw comparison to both Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, given the missionary element, and J. G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, for the Japanese occupation of China and the experience of the internment camps. I’d say that this is likely to hold more appeal to Kingsolver’s fans more than Ballard’s, although I think that this is quite a different story.
In a Land of Paper Gods will be published on 28 January. Many thanks to Ella Bowman and Tinder Press for providing a copy for review. I really enjoyed this enchanting début, and I’ll be recommending it to lots of people.