You’re at a trivia night. You’re asked to name a writer who’s known as an Aussie but wasn’t born in Australia, and who worked in advertising before becoming a full-time author. You confidently write Bryce Courtenay and feel very smug but are devastated when the answer is revealed as Derek Hansen.
If you haven’t read any of Derek Hansen’s books, start now. I was given the superb collection of short stories, Psycho Cat, in 1997, and I was hooked on Hansen’s humorous and elegant prose. The man is a true storyteller (which is probably why he was a very successful ad man), and Psycho Cat was the inspiration for my own psycho cat story, The Million Dollar Cat. If you are very, very lucky you’ll find Psycho Cat at a church fete or second hand book shop. Fight for it if you have to.
In 2007 Hansen wrote a coming-of-age novel set in New Zealand in the 1950s – Remember Me. I sense it’s a fictionalised semi-autobiography. The hero, like Hansen himself, was born in the UK and moved to New Zealand at a very early age. The sense of time and place is very real, the twelve-year-old hero’s voice totally believable. What happens to the boy is fiction, but it’s so well-written, with irony and humour, that you believe it’s true.
Kids are kids: the hero and his friends refer to local nun Sister Gloria as Sister Glorious and dream about what she wears under her habit – that delicious Hansen sense of humour again. The dialogue between the gang of boys is a delight; the schemes they get up to and scrapes they get into are a reminder of my own 1960s early childhood, when parents weren’t helicopter parents, and you could get into all kinds of mischief and if you were careful, not get found out.
This is an enchanting book, written through the eyes of an observant child who discovers a wartime secret, writes about it in an essay and polarises the local community, making enemies, turning friends against each other and destroying the fabric of friendships and relationships.
During World War II a local fisherman, Mack, has an encounter with a U-boat which has drifted off course. The captain of the U-boat gives Mack freedom in return for a tank of diesel and total silence. Mack must never mention it, and he is true to his word. Until one night he lets his guard down and tells our hero the story, and the boy tries to find a happy ending for Mack, who has lived with being a traitor since that terrifying wartime day. With memories of the war still fresh in adult minds, let’s say things don’t go smoothly when the story gets out and a stranger lands in town. Not smoothly at all. Is there a happy ending though? You’ll have to read it to find out?
I love this book. I’ve read it twice so far and will undoubtedly read it again. Discover Derek Hansen – you’ll be glad you did.