Van has finished reading…In A Land Of Paper Gods by Rebecca Mackenzie

25 Jan

Though there are a number of ways in which we can think of home – a particular building, a geographical location, a group of people – at heart they are all about belonging and identity. Ming-Mei is no longer Ming-Mei. Sent by her parents to the Lushan Missionary school, she becomes Henrietta (Etta) S Robertson. She is encouraged not to speak Chinese while she learns to become what her parents, what she, hopes one day to be: a good missionary. It is 1941. As rumours of war circle the mountain, ten-year-old Etta feels her dislocation. Scared of becoming the gui-mei, the ‘ghost-girl’ the women her mother used to preach to would call her, sunk in the mists and mysticism of the mountain, Etta may have experienced a prophecy. As the shifting whims of childhood are tested in ways the children of Lushan School could not have foreseen, things start to unravel.

In A Land Of Paper Gods evokes a child’s eye view of life in a boarding school for the children of Missionary Workers in China. Rebecca Mackenzie weaves these two cultures, the struggle for understanding and purpose in an isolated world, the uncertainty of war that bleeds into the children’s consciousness into an airy and atmospheric story, as encompassing and disconcerting as a descending mountain mist. But both Etta and Aunty Muriel, Etta’s Dormitory Teacher and occasional narrator, are beacons to guide us.

It’s an easy thing to sneer at an ideology you don’t believe in. It’s an easy thing to present a belief that appears tawdry and leaves the character looking foolish or deluded. Not so with Etta. Etta’s faith fits her perfectly. It’s a child-like belief rooted in her earliest memories. And it sways and wavers like the tallest mountain pine. Her voice is wonderful. From the off she is a child you feel you want to know and, for me, remained a person I both felt and rooted for throughout (make no mistake, this is a very emotional book). Indeed, the characterisation throughout the novel is excellent, but particularly for the girls who surround Etta. They are diverse and consistent, almost visible they are so well-drawn.

That sense of belonging takes on wider connotations with the actions of the Prophetess Club, the group of school-friends she surrounds herself with. There’s that fundamental belief in the good of what they’re doing but there’s the fallout, too. The old conflict between perceived benefit and incidental harm inherent in mission work subtly laid out.


Coming-of-age stories are not rare in fiction. Stories like In A Land Of Paper Gods are somewhat thinner on the ground. I would not have guessed the journey Etta and her friends go on at the start of the book. I like a book that leaves me thinking beyond the last page, and in that respect Rebecca MacKenzie doesn’t disappoint. The ending is perfectly weighted. Etta is a superbly-drawn character; true to her nature throughout, though very different from when she began by the end. She is cheeky and funny. She is self-absorbed and self-possessed. She will make you laugh and she will make you hold your breath. Her story will likely make you cry. It’s a book that will stay with you. It’s a book that has the power to wring your soul.

In A Land of Paper Gods was published by Tinder Press on 28th January 2016 ISBN:9781472224200

You can find Rebecca on Twitter @Rebeccamackenz or at her website,

My thanks to BookBridgr, and Ella Bowman at Headline for allowing me to review this book.


One Response to “Van has finished reading…In A Land Of Paper Gods by Rebecca Mackenzie”


  1. My top five reads of 2016 | vanisreading - 10/01/2017

    […] favourite of the year), Claire King’s heart-breaking Everything Love Is, Rebecca MacKenzie’s In A Land Of Paper Gods, Rebecca Mascull’s Song Of the Sea Maid and Janet Ellis’s singular debut The Butcher’s Hook […]

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