Book review: The Nancys by R.W.R. McDonald

(cover image courtesy Allen & Unwin)

By any idealistic measure, childhood is supposed to be an untouched idyll, a place of innocence and untrammelled happiness where the sun shines, the birds sing and anything wonderful is possible.

11-year-old Tippy Chan, however, inhabits a wholly different world in The Nancys, one where the bounteous escapism of youth has lost ground, by a considerable margin, to the sorts of things no child is supposed to face like grief, loss and the brokenness of life.

She still has her devoted mum, close friends Todd and Sam, her uncle’s old Nancy Drew books which she adores (she wants to be the eponymous hero, especially the early footloose and fancy free 16-year-old iteration) and the pleasures that comes from small town New Zealand life (the town of Riverstone, to be exact) but everything else is off, and try as she might, she can’t seem to right things.

Then along comes her entrepreneurial hairdresser Uncle Pike, who looks uncannily like Santa Claus, and his new fashion-designer boyfriend Devon, who never met a tight sparkly T-shirt he didn’t like, and life suddenly takes on a whole new, gloriously camp hue.

Sure, her mum is away on a cruise she won, and that’s hard especially when a series of events take place that practically demand motherly love and reassurance, but Pike and Devon are determined to be the best uncles possible, even in a town like Riverstone which Pike fled the first chance he got.

“The rest of the morning was a blur. Uncle Pike called the school and told them I wouldn’t be in. He wouldn’t let me go to my room but instead made me a bed on the couch. Devon handed me a mug of sweet, milky tea, and I lay there for ages under a blanket, sipping and watching, but not watching, the TV. My uncle and Devon came in and out from sunbathing on the balcony to check on me and ask if I wanted to join them outside, but I didn’t want to move. I wanted to be alone.” (P. 33)

There’s ice cream, fun, inappropriate use of language and visits to nosy Mrs Brown next door, who turns out to be far more of a fag hag and into life and living than anyone really bargains for.

But then her teacher’s body is found oddly close to the town’s one and only traffic light, a discovery witnessed by a five-year-old named Suzie, whose crayon drawing helps propel the intrepid threesome on a sleuthing adventure that calls for the kind of mystery-solving moniker of which Ms. Drew would be proud.

The only real option, if you’re Tippy Chan and Uncle Pike, and you’re massive Nancy Drew fans, and they are, is The Nancys, a fabulously-perfect name that speaks to their shared love of the mystery novels and reclaims, in a lovely touch, a pejorative once doled out to the likes of Pike and Devon.

They’re all set – Tippy and Pike get to live out their childhood sleuthing dreams, Devon gets to design a kickass logo and T-shirt ensemble, and Riverstone gets to have its grand mystery solved (because as in the Nancy Drew novels, the police are pretty clueless; except for the luscious Barry who makes a far more personal discovery of his own, thanks to Pike’s care and concern).

R.W.R. McDonald (image courtesy official R.W.R. McDonald Twitter account)

Suffice to say in a novel of almost 400 pages, things don’t play out quite that simply or jocularly, and Tippy soon discovers there’s far more going on than just finding a killer.

As they begin to ask questions and uncover clues, Tippy comes face-to-face, in the kind of confronting ways no kids should ever have to, with long-simmering grief, the sort that is shoved down for a thousand different reasons and which rises up and takes you down in comprehensively-overwhelming ways when you least expect them.

Pike too, is facing more than a few past demons in the form of old boyfriend Michael Hornblower and former bestie Sally Homer, and though he finds diversion with The Nancys and preparing Mrs Brown’s initially unenthusiastic granddaughter Melanie for the local show’s annual pageant, he too has to make his peace with the past.

If that sounds a lot of heavy emotion to pack into such a light and fun premise, then prepare to be awed by R. W. R. McDonald’s superlative ability to mix together the black humour of grief and loss with the giddy happiness of hope and dreams fulfilled (and fashion makeovers par excellence).

“My uncle chuckled. ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet, Tippy Chan.’ As Melanie headed out, he hoisted himself up on his crutches, ‘It might seem strange, Tippy, but sometimes we do these things, like helping win, because it makes us feel good. because we are good at them.’ We walked slowly inside. ‘Just like you and the Nancys—you are such a good investigator, I’m sure you’ll have it solved in no time.'” (P. 208)

Deftly dancing between the two like Devon whimsically leaving and re-entering a room, McDonald explores, in a language rich and happy, sombre and introspective, what it is like to make your way through life when everything has been, and is being, royally upended.

There’s the escapist fun of playing Nancy Drew, which Pike, Tippy and Devon do beautifully, evoking the ever-escalating jigsaw puzzle fun of the novels to a headily-nostalgic degree, and there’s all kinds of profound sadness and loss.

The two shouldn’t go together as well as they do, but McDonald makes it work with aplomb in The Nancys, mirroring the way life is a melange of happy and sad, good and bad, past and present; sure, Tippy is learning it way earlier than most, but she has Pike and Devon by her side, who offer as much love and support as they do fun, lighthearted diversion.

The Nancys is warmhearted, charming joy, a blanket of cosyness, love and inclusion that is a much-needed reminder than even when life comes unceremoniously crashing down around you, that that’s not the end; even when the hard truths of life must be faced, it can be done with the ones you love around you, a brilliantly-sequined T-shirt in your wardrobe, and Nancy Drew by your side and in your heart, which is, when you think about it, exactly how life should be.

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