Review: In Amber’s Wake

Reviewed by Hannah Tunnicliffe

In Amber’s Wake explores the messy and searing nature of first love - the kind that remains indelible and haunts well past its expiry date. In doing so, Christine Leunens (who wrote Caged Skies which became the film Jojo Rabbit directed by Taika Waititi) weaves a tale that is both universal and distinctly Kiwi.

In Amber’s Wake begins on the cusp of the 1980s, at a music festival on a farm in the Golden valley. Bands are playing covers of Bob Dylan and women are naked in the public showers; as protagonist and student filmmaker Ethan Grieg describes it there is “a feeling of liberation, of walking an inch off the ground.”

Fate leads Ethan to a mood ring stall where he meets teenage Amber Deering, “a thin, fragile-looking blonde.” She is mysterious and vulnerable with swimming-pool-blue eyes and wears white riding breeches. Ethan is a goner.

“Horses are strong and robust, but one false step and they’re suddenly made of glass,” Amber says to Ethan when they first meet. She could just as easily be talking about herself or the complex relationship that forms between them. Amber is from a very different world to Ethan, hailing from a horse-breeding family in Cambridge and he from not-yet-gentrified Ponsonby. Plus, there’s a significant obstacle: Amber’s unlikely boyfriend - the wealthy, elegant, almost sexagenarian Stuart.

Stuart reminds Ethan of “the eldest Magi in an Illustrated Children’s Bible – usually the one bearing the plate of gold.” He aims for youthful nonchalance about the unconventional pairing while Stuart wows Amber with his worldliness and gentle charm (and a yacht called Santa Kathrina named after his late wife). Competition simmers furiously between the two men, Ethan telling the reader “It felt as if a starting pistol had been fired and the race was on – I had to move fast and somehow beat him those last hundred metres or miles left to her heart…”

Shifting between the present, in which Ethan is filming a documentary in Antarctica, and the past, In Amber’s Wake explores the messy and searing nature of first love. The kind that remains indelible and haunts well past its expiry date. The kind that has us believe it could have worked, it would have survived, if only…

Leunens, author of Caged Skies which famously became the film Jojo Rabbit directed by Taika Waititi, weaves a tale that is both universal and distinctly Kiwi. She employs settings such as The Gluepot and Shakespeare Tavern and includes references to the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior and the controversial Springboks rugby tour of 1981. Because of Leunens’ skill in writing historical fiction, In Ambers Wake is an enjoyable trip down memory lane sprinkled with language from that time – “fuddy-duddy,” “Chateau cardboard” and “relaxopants.”

She evokes the feeling of being young in this era with recollections like calling from a payphone: “Those next minutes my roll of coins was something akin to a sparkler burning away too fast…I could hear the metallic descent of coins, and the gluttonous moment the payphone actually swallowed.”

In Amber’s Wake is told in past tense, a choice that becomes clear by the end of the book but which may leave some readers feeling disconnected to the action. I personally longed for more dialogue, more showing rather than telling. Perhaps, due to this, I found Ethan and Amber slightly unlikeable at times. Especially when Ethan describes his family or disregards other women: “Me go out with her? She could’ve eaten an apple through a picket fence!” There were moments I wasn’t sure Ethan was truly in love with Amber or just swept up in the fantasy of a “manic pixie dream girl” and the thrill of the competition with Stuart.

But In Amber’s Wake has a few surprises up its sleeve which I won’t spoil for you. The book has a satisfying ending but whether it is ‘happy’ or not you’ll have to decide for yourself. According to her agent’s website, Leunens has written the screenplay for In Amber’s Wake which has been taken for production. For fans of Sally Rooney’s Normal People and One Day by David Nicholls, both of which were successfully adapted to the screen, In Amber’s Wake offers a similar nostalgic, Aotearoa-based version so you’ll be able to smugly declare, when the film appears, that you read the book first.

Reviewed by Hannah Tunnicliffe