No Man’s Land is a new novella from author A.J. Fitzwater, published in June by Paper Road Press. Set in North Otago, Aotearoa New Zealand during WWII, the story follows Dorothea “Tea” Gray, whose brother Robbie has gone off to war to be a sapper. Wanting to do her part, Tea joins the Land Service, and takes over Robbie’s former job shearing sheep and working on the MacGregor farm. Tea is joined by three other Land Service girls, Alison, Carmel, and Izzy, and a young man named Grant whose illness kept him from joining the service.
On the day she arrives at the farm, Tea is followed by a strange, shadowy dog, and her feeling of something odd going on only builds from there. Her senses are heightened, and she hears her brother’s voice in a way she becomes increasingly sure isn’t just her own inner monologue or wishful thinking. Grant and Izzy are secretive around her, as if they know more about Tea than she knows about herself. She hears a persistent hissing, like something calling to her, especially when she’s around water. She also experiences sensations, sights and sounds, she’s certain don’t belong to her, and might just belong to her brother Robbie on distant continent in the midst of war. While trying to understand what’s happening to her, Tea still has to contend with daily life, the exhausting work of the farm, and not drawing the ire of Mr. MacGregor. Contrasted with the mundane world of the farm, hidden just beneath its surface, it seems there’s a whole other world waiting for Tea. Sometimes it seems as though there’s another being inside of her, one that frightens her, and that she can’t entirely control. Further complicating matters is Tea’s attraction to Izzy. All her life, Tea has been taught that a woman loving another woman, or a man loving another man is unnatural, not to mention illegal. Tea’s conflicted feelings strain her relationship with Izzy, who could be Tea’s closest ally, helping her understand the power within her, and her true magical nature.
A border collie, mostly black with a scattering of white on the bib and paws, yelped and skittered. Her shadow! It wasn’t male after all. The look the dog cast back at Tea made her shiver for a third time. The familiar-strange scent hit Tea, making her flinch. It was a scent she thought she’d only dreamed, one she associated with starlight, fresh-turned soil, warm cotton.
No Man’s Land is gorgeously-written, wrapped in beautiful cover art by Laya Rose Mutton-Rogers. Fitzwater has a real gift for prose and sensory description, which they deploy to great effect, creating a sense of breathless disorientation around the ebb and flow of nature, the magic within Tea, and the chaos of war. The language is the kind that snaps you up and gets you lost in the best of ways, but at the same time, the characters, especially Tea, keep the story grounded. We get snippets of Grant and Izzy’s perspectives as well, but for the most part, we’re in Tea’s head, right alongside her as she experiences frustration – from her mother unpacking all her practical clothes and filling her suitcase with clothing designed to help her catch a husband, to the way the men on the farm goad her and tease her and expect her to fail at “men’s work”, and her conflicted feelings about Izzy and the growing power she discovers within herself.
Need and desire are an underlying current in all of Tea’s thoughts and actions – not just physical desire, but the desire to be respected, taken seriously, and to do something that matters, especially when it comes to the war. With her brother so far away, Tea feels helpless, made worse by the fact that she feels trapped by the box of expectations placed around her as a woman. She wants to break out, forge her own way in the world, but at the same time, she’s afraid. All her life she’s been taught there’s a natural order to things – magic belongs in stories for children, and women are meant to be wives and mothers and nothing more. Even though Tea doesn’t truly believe either of those things deep down, she’s been conditioned to accept them. The war forms a backdrop, but the conflict in the novella is far more personal, as Tea wars with herself, and what she’s been taught to believe about the world versus the larger possibilities of who she is allowed to love, who she is allowed to be, and what she’s allowed to do with her life.
No Man’s Land brings to the forefront women’s history, and the kind of stories that often go untold in war narratives, shifting the focus from soldiers on the front line to those doing vital work back home. Farm labor is just as important to keeping the world turning, but history often overlooks jobs considered “menial” or “women’s work”. The novella also touches on queer history and rights, particularly in the epilogue taking place years after the war. Tea’s self-discovery is rooted in history and a personal journey, but soaked in the magic and wonder of the hidden world existing alongside ours. It’s a lovely book, and I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy right now.