End Times

Rebecca Priestley, Te Herenga Waka University Press, $35

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Shortly after the first round of lockdowns, much-lauded Wellington science writer Rebecca Priestley and her best mate Maz, a civil engineer, head off on a road trip around the West Coast. They buy tremendous pies and tour the Stockton coal mine and brood in some detail on the risk of the Alpine Fault going, to the point of packing go-bags for a stay in Franz Josef/Waiau. They stay with a wise, contented school friend in Karamea, eat loads of whitebait, and take their glasses of wine to the river mouth at sunset, “where the sun glows yolky yellow beyond dark seas”.

Priestley’s expertise is in geology and climate. In this memoir, a collection of simple essays, she makes a study of listening. She asks a friend how he can work at a coal mine, given his understanding of climate change. Presses a mayor on his anti-science climate takes. She asks people whether they’ll get the vaccine, pop-quizzing a hairdresser, a woman at a food cart, a man talking to the woman at the food cart. (Not sure; no; “I’m not really into it.”)

Running parallel to these closely observed stories is a flashback, told in some depth: the story of how Priestley and Maz, as teenaged punks, fell heavily into, and then out of, born-again Christianity. This lived experience, deftly woven in with the disinformation she now sees playing out around her, gives her an empathy—and the womens’ friendship a resilience—which together form the backbone of the book.