Reviewed by Craig Sisterson
A beautiful New Zealand summer. An ugly past that won’t stay buried. Paediatric surgeon Claire Bowerman has reluctantly returned to Auckland from London. Calm, rational and in control, she loves delicately repairing her small patients’ wounds. Tragically, wounds sometimes made by the children’s own families. Yossi wants to marry Claire. He thinks they’ve come to the safest place on earth, worlds away from the violence he knew growing up. He revels in the glorious summer, the idyllic islands of the gulf. But Roimata, Claire’s fifteen-year-old daughter, is full of questions. Why is Claire so secretive about her past? Why won’t she talk to the man who could solve the mystery that dominated her childhood?
When a family refuses medical treatment for their boy, Claire’s story is in the headlines again. All Claire wants to do is run. This is a novel about the wounds a family can make. About a woman caught between the past and the present. And about her need to keep everybody safe. Especially herself.
This was a fascinating read. Before I read it myself I'd heard about it from two different books people I trust and respect - one who thought it was a book with strong crime threads, that could definitely fall under the broader view of 'crime fiction' (ie books about crime or the impact of crime, not just detective fiction or the solving of crime), and another who thought it was a deep character study and family drama that had little to nothing to do with crime at all. Having read it, I can see both sides.
Wherever you fit it on a 'genre' spectrum, there's no doubt about one thing: DAYS ARE LIKE GRASS is a tremendously well-written and emotional book, a pearler of a story that flows beautifully and takes the reader deep into the characters lives and the challenges they face. It's an astonishing debut from a fresh new voice in New Zealand literature that has the page-turning flow of a psychological thriller even as it centres largely on domestic and workplace issues for the characters.
DAYS ARE LIKE GRASS is the kind of book that lingers, that you'll still be thinking about days later. Pondering the choices the characters made, the varying outcomes, and questions of justice.
The book starts years ago with a life-altering choice made by a man who'd picked up a young hitch-hiker. It's a vignette touching on an all-too familiar crime for anyone who's grown up in New Zealand - the disappearance of a young woman on the lonely rural roads of our country. For Kiwi readers there'll be echoes of famous unsolved crimes and disappearances, names etched into our country's consciousness as we grew up, and still. In DAYS ARE LIKE GRASS, the effects of that choice, and all that followed, casts an ongoing shadow over the lives of the main characters decades later.
Claire Bowerman is a respected paediatric surgeon who's returned to her homeland from Europe with her fiance Yossi and fifteen-year-old daughter Roimata. Claire likes to be in control, but the tightly wound precision that helps her in her career can be problematic in other areas of her life. As a doctor she wants to do what's best for her patients - often disadvantaged and abused children - but can smack into opposing wishes of parents and hospital administrators. This comes to a head when the parents of a child with a tumour refuse life-saving treatment, instead opting for alternative measures. The media interest in the case opens up Claire's past, something she has tried to put in a box buried deep.
For Claire's father was that man in the car with the hitch-hiker. A man many think is a rapist and murderer. Claire's lived with the stares, the questions, the shame for most of her life - only escaping from it when she lived abroad. Now back in New Zealand, the past is rekindled when reporters put two and two together. The daughter of an infamous man, trying to force her wishes on a family.
If that wasn't drama enough, the extended family of Claire's daughter Roimata gets in touch, opening up other areas of Claire's life that she'd closed off. And Yossi, her rock, isn't in total agreement with Claire about a variety of matters. Why did she come back 'home', to have all her fears exposed?
However you categorise it, DAYS ARE LIKE GRASS is full of drama with a capital D. There are medico-legal and ethical questions, family challenges, themes about how we cope with the past and live alongside other people who think differently from us. It's the kind of book that will have you thinking deeply even as you hurtle along, as well as feeling for the wholly believable characters.
At times I found Claire a bit of a difficult 'heroine' or main character. She's sometimes the least likable, and a frustrating person if you find yourself siding with other characters in various disputes. But that's part of the beauty of this book. However you feel about Claire (and some readers may be 100% on her 'side'), she's beautifully flawed and very human. We grow to understand her and her choices, even if we disagree with them. We can see how all she's been through in her life has caused her to put up walls, and the battle she faces letting people in, and letting go of control.
DAYS ARE LIKE GRASS starts with a past crime that haunts the entire book, has moments of crime and mystery throughout, but different readers may have different views about how 'crime-y' it is. Personally, I don't really care. It's a great novel, well worth reading. I think fans of crime fiction could love it (as long as they don't expect detective fiction or an investigation-centred novel), as well as fans of 'contemporary fiction'. It has a lovely page-turning quality, deeply drawn characters, and also Younger does a great job evoking the contemporary Auckland setting and landscapes.
Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes features for magazines and newspapers in several countries. He has interviewed more than 180 crime writers, discussed crime writing onstage at festivals in Europe and Australasia and on national radio, and is a judge of the McIlvanney Prize and Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson