A Runner’s Guide to Rakiura: A Novel, Jessica Howland Kany
Quentin Wilson Publishing 2022
Jessica Howland Kany grew up on Manhattan Island, New York City, and has lived on Rakiura Stewart Island for twenty years. She edits Stewart Island News, does desk work for her fisherman husband, raises her sons, and runs. She has worked in the local pub, in various libraries, trapping rats, running a myths and legends club for local children. Her writing has appeared in a number of magazines: Running Times, North & South, New Zealand Geographic, New Zealand Gardener, Wilderness Magazine, Sky & Telescope, The Island Review.
A Runner’s Guide to Rakiura is Jessica’s first novel, and I find it gripping on a number of surprising levels. It’s one of those rare occasions where I would like to sit in a cafe, preferably on Rakiura, and talk about the novel with other readers. It seems to have achieved scant attention in the media bar a few interviews, and didn’t make the NZ Book Award Fiction longlist. I find it rich, complex, thrilling. Lynn Freeman enthused about it, as one of three favourite books of 2022 (see RNZ link below).
For me, the first gripping hook is location. It grips through its succulent depiction of place. That I have been to Rakiura on two occasions makes a difference. Once with a bunch of poets to share a feast of food and to perform to locals in the hall. On that visit, I got up before the sun and watched daylight appear, sat next to the lapping tide, just me in the dark with the stretching beauty. Wonderful visit! And once with my partner, to stay in a cottage courtesy of friends, go for walks, eat mouthwatering fish and chips on the waterfront, go to the Sunday pub quiz, eat in the sublime restaurant up the hill, go for more long walks, chill and recharge. Both occasions were memorable.
The depiction of place and people feels achingly real in the novel, to the point I wondered if the characters were based on Rakiura locals. But in an interview for Stuff, Jessica underlines that the community was too small to go borrowing real people for her characters. She told Susy Ferguson that the only “real” person she mined was herself, and that bits of her appear in all the characters. I spent a weekend reading the book, and it was like I spent a weekend on the island. I could smell, taste and sense it.
Books can be a glorious form of travel.
The second gripping hook is the structure of the novel. The title suggests it is a running guide, but it is also a guide to the island, to history, to life and living, to food, to love. Don’t expect a traditional narrative structure with a beginning, middle and end, and a steady plot line. It is a fabulous compendium of various writings that range from activities to do on the island, poetry, Moby Dick, a set of clues, a genealogy, a treasure map. Sentences are crafted in exquisite ways from the traditional to the linguistically playful. Individual words matter: piquant, puzzling, powerful. Punctuation is also playful – and it works! I feel like I am in the company of someone who adores language and what language can do.
The third gripping hook is that the protagonist, like the author herself, is an outsider who has moved in, who engages with the community in various ways, and sees things in prismatic lights. “Things” become both strange and familiar as I read. Jessica is fascinated with language because the local jargon is often near incomprehensible. She keeps a notebook. She rolls the words on her tongue and in her ear, and the vernacular becomes a treasury. Language is an entry point to an else or otherwhere. For me, it reinforces the notion that place (think people and physical location) is never singular. Place offers multiple fascinating narratives.
The fourth gripping hook is the way a treasure hunt adds to the magnetic pull of reading. Herein lies the need for clues and maps, discovery and a compulsion to search, the links to war and loss. I became more and more gripped by the hunt but I also realised that that the treasure was not just a buried box. It was treasure of the heart, the treasure of finding one’s place in the world, and in a small community.
Yes, this is a guide to running, but it is a guide to so much more. I found it addictive and affecting, it lifted me out of self isolation, and took me to Rakiura for a weekend retreat, for my third “visit”. I loved it.
RNZ interview with Susy Ferguson, Nine to Noon
RNZ Lynn Freeman picks the novel as one of her favourite books of 2022
Interview with Michael Fallow for Stuff