7 Dec 2023

Review: End Times by Rebecca Priestley

10:17 am on 7 December 2023

With apocalyptic imagery and headlines within easy reach, ‘doomerism’ can seem both reasonable and oddly fashionable in the 2020s. But there’s a double burden for people professionally required to stare down the real possibilities of the end of the world, whether localised or general.

Hence Rebecca Priestley’s sleepless night in the township of Franz Josef, calculating the odds of a break in the Alpine Fault tearing down the surrounding hills. On a given night: unlikely. At some point, as likely tonight as at any other time: unavoidable, maybe non-negotiable.

Author Rebecca Priestley

Author Rebecca Priestley Photo: Photo by Victoria Birkinshaw / VUP

Priestley’s new memoir explores the complications of living in a world under threat across two parallel timelines. Her primary, present-tense narrative is a road trip down the South Island West Coast in the company of her lifelong friend Maz in the winter of 2021 – almost a whistlestop tour of various aspects of climate crisis, from a pillar of flame burning from a methane vent in the rainforest to coal mining operations and disappearing glaciers.

Interleaved with the weeklong road trip, in the past tense, are the experiences of teenaged Rebecca and Maz in the 1980s as they made an abrupt turn from punk culture to evangelical Christianity in an environment suffused with fears of nuclear war.  Shared music and jokes, and a readiness to defy expectations, bridge the two eras.  

The road trip narrative, taking place immediately before the Delta lockdowns and the end of the zero-Covid era, takes place in a defined period that’s fast becoming contemporary history, with its focus on domestic tourism, early hesitance about forthcoming vaccines, and concerns that New Zealand might be becoming insular and inward-looking in the face of a world with bigger concerns.

Interactions are captured with journalistic immediacy, and Priestley notes the sense of being fortunate enough to travel and interact with people post-lockdown, with the skills of a practiced interviewer coming through in rendering of dialogue and the open, nonjudgmental rendering of the people that accompany the trip, some new acquaintances and some much more familiar.

No caption

Photo: Might Ape

The 1980s portions of the book are equally compelling, equally rich in detail, but more tightly focused on belief and personal experience, as Priestley looks back on the mechanics of rejecting and embracing different sets of ideas at a formative time of life.

The book’s also very frankly honest and open, with a willingness and readiness to put anxieties and personal history on the table. This is particularly the case in the flashback sections, but not absent from the contemporary sections either. There’s a single, elegant and forceful page reflecting the frustrations of men's treatment of women in the workplace, one likely to stick in the mind for a while.

One extended section of the book, a live interview with the Mayor of Westland, captures Priestley in a professional mode that’s still personally generous while revealing frustrations with climate denialism as they come to her mind, question by question.

It’s a unique and very personal journey within a journey, with a lot to say about human connection and friendship, belief and what drives it, and how to orient yourself toward a fragile and threatened world.

End Times captures a personal accounting and pulling back together, “finding a way back to the world” and finding a place in it without being consumed by anxiety. It’s a story that’s likely to feel more relevant and urgent for many more of us as we look for healthy, meaningful survival in imperfect and worrying times.

This review by Sam Finnemore was originally published on Kete Books and is reproduced here with kind permission. 

Get the RNZ app

for easy access to all your favourite programmes