We meet Gabrijela stuffing sardines into tins at a factory, greasy and fish-stinking and dreaming of life beyond her village on an island off the Dalmatian coast. It’s 1959 and there is no bright future for a girl like her: it’s a family or the fishery. She’d like to be a teacher.
She loves her mother, her brother and her friends; her father is domineering but she accepts this and it’s a happy childhood. Then her mother’s half-brother, who has been distant for years and is now an official in Tito’s party, comes to oversee some work on the island and takes up residence in the household.
We jump forward some months and Garbrijela is on the way to New Zealand and freedom from the sardines. Her father has arranged a position with a Dalmation family in Auckland. Our elation is quickly punctured. She has been sent. She has disgraced the family, she pines for the “dragi“– the boyfriend – left behind and she waits for him to write, to come for her, for them to be together.
This picture of an immigrant in a home community on foreign soil is well drawn. Immigrants are often first welcomed by their own people and from the outside it’s not always obvious how difficult that might be. They’ve got their people around them, right? But Gabrijela has to find her place in New Zealand and determine which of the old ways are the same what what’s done differently there. She works, slowly makes friends, learns the language, pines for her dragi.
Skip forward to 1989 and her daughter lives the reverse. She has also lost her dragi–she calls him boyfriend–and returns to the Dalmatian coast to find her mother’s family. Some things feel right, some things are entirely different. She doesn’t speak the language. I’m avoiding a couple of big spoilers here. It gets pretty intense. We go back to Gabrijela’s story and the reason she was sent away.
Ultimately, this is the story of how men view women and how the subjected women live with this. The imbalance of power is palpable. Good story.
I went looking for other books by New Zealander Pip McKay, but this is it, so far. I’m keeping an eye out for the next.