Modern Gods by Nick Laird
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
It didn't take much more than the mention of Papua New Guinea for me to request an eARC of this novel. I did not know nor did I care that Nick Laird is married to Zadie Smith, something I only discovered after reading.
I've always loved novels featuring anthropologists, linguists, or people struggling through similar issues. There is so much ripe for conflict when white people (or people from the developed world) go traipsing through the world to study or convert.
Some of my favorites:
-Mating by Norman Rush
-Euphoria by Lily King
-State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (up until the blue mushrooms)
-The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (yes aliens, yes anthropology)
-The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara (hated it, loved it, couldn't decide)
So I was hoping for more of that. 25% in, the narrative was still in Ireland, focusing on the siblings in a family and their somewhat dysfunctional adult lives. Interspersed with that were profiles of people who had died in a shooting, which I was confused about at first. I didn't dislike the beginning, but it definitely was not what I expected when I started.
Eventually Liz, the older sister of the family, gets to New Ulster, an island off of PNG, and starts her work. She is more of a journalist and is there very briefly, investigating what might be the newest religion in the world, a female-led cargo cult. I think the author got a lot right about PNG from what I know about it through my own reading; the only thing I'm not sure about is how Liz (and her BBC crew) were able to connect so easily to Belef, the leader of the cargo cult. Anthropologists talk about the importance of trust and understanding the culture and still spending years gaining the kind of access her crew gets in under two weeks, foreign technology and being filmed included. That's a bit of a stretch. Not to mention that Liz, while trained in anthropology, learns much about what she knows by skimming a few books she's heard about on the long plane rides over.
The novel as a whole draws some interesting parallels. There is a storyline dealing with the aftermath of a shooting that happened during "the troubles" in Northern Ireland, questioning how people move on from that violence and form normal lives. In New Ulster, like most of Papua New Guinea, World War II was the first real connection they had with the outside world. Missionaries have moved in and started to insist the natives act a certain way, but these also seem to be puppets of the government and/or commerce, which is not good!
We really only see the natives through the lens of Liz, which is more fair than the lens of the missionary and his family. I would have liked an entire novel of Liz and Belef and the cargo cult and ghost children, and I'm still mulling over why the author chose to make over half of the novel about this other story.
Thanks to the publisher for providing early access to the title via Edelweiss.
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