Bugs is Whiti Heraka’s second novel and was published in 2013 by Huia Publishers. Whiti is a New Zealand playwriter and novelist and I picked up this book after her presentations at the 2018 NorthWrite Conference. Bugs was the winner of the Whitbread Book of the Year award, winner of the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize and Booktrust Teenage Prize and was shortlisted for the CILIP Carnegie Medal and the British Book Awards.
The novel is written from the perspective of Bugs, a teenager growing up in Taupo, New Zealand. Bugs and her long-term friend Jez and newcomer Stone Cold form a trio that have to navigate the trials of the last few years of high school, poverty (and the contrast of the richer classes), teenage friendships, driver’s licences, consequences, and domestic violence. As Bugs gains her independence she begins to understand the sacrifices her mother, as a solo parent, has made for her, and forms clearer ideas about her own future, which doesn’t line up with the careers advice that school wants to foist upon them. She starts to see through the dystopian nature of school and society and consequently finds her own place in the world.
The strength of this novel is the dialogue which is believable and consistent. It is punctuated with words that teenagers use and carries the tone of each character well. For example, “Fuck, yes fuck. You’re not supposed to be here, Jez.” Hereaka has not shied away from her characters accurately reflecting the scenarios and speech that real teenagers are immersed in. I also believe a strength is the way that Hereaka has taken a story that could have been set in the 1990’s and modernised it, broadening her readership so that anyone from a teenager today to someone in their 40’s could relate.
Hereaka has explored several broad themes in the novel, including family, friendship, poverty, drugs, the law, consequences, testing boundaries, dysfunctional families, domestic violence, drinking, and tied them together with a simple story with 3 main characters. This works well by using each theme to project the novel forward, and at some point in each section, Bugs reflects on the larger picture or links the new theme with an older one (such as “he has been wiped over, painted clean, gone,” to refer to Jez disappearing down the street, which is a direct reference to his room.)
I found inspiration in the realism of the speech, even when it is at times insightful or thoughtful there is no digression from it being believable.
“Then you cant take it with you, or someone takes it away.”
Another lesson I took from Hereaka’s writing is the use of the italics to emphasise speech in thoughts to clearly differentiate them from speech from the characters. This technique is used when Bugs reflects on the people in her life and what they could be thinking.
Hereaka. W. (2013). Bugs. NZ, Wellington: Random House. (242 pages)