I read Waitapu over a couple of leisurely evenings and loved it. It’s a beautiful book, elegantly written and so evocative of every small town in New Zealand that we know from a drive past, or a dip into when we visit a grandparent. I remember going with a Wellington friend home to small town NZ and this takes me back there, the interconnected community, the talk across the fence, the visits. There was a sort of pride that everyone knew each other but an embarrassment, too. My friend couldn’t wait to be away again.
Waitapu is the name of the town, and there are eighteen short stories in the book, all interconnected, sometimes tenuously by people but always by Waitapu and the feeling it evokes. There is both comfort and frustration in knowing exactly what to expect and home doesn’t necessarily mean sanctuary, family not always loving. Rowena is a thread through the stories as she is a thread through the town. She is a social worker, opening folding tables in other people’s living rooms, offering tea and biscuits while checking how things are in a household. How people are faring.
Rowena and her sister Ruby didn’t fare so well when they were the ones growing up and both ran away from the violence of their father. But the father eventually loses his power and Rowena finds herself in the position of being the carer for a man who never cared for her. Ruby, after years of hard life in Australia, comes home.
There is a positive feeling for the next generation, a hesitant suggestion that small town New Zealand is slowly going in a good direction. People grow old, things soften. You don’t have to take the shit with you.
Frank, a proud man who observes his and his wife’s decline into old age, beautifully sums up the feeling of losing his place in the world.
He leaned against his cane and watched the slow, spiralling descent of the leaves. For a strange moment he felt adrift, as though he’d lost his place in the same way a reader might lose their place in a book.
Is that what old age feels like? I’ve often picked up a book I’ve fallen asleep reading and had to flick through the pages to find where I was. What a chilling thought.
First published in 2015 by Escalator Press, this book deserves to remain on bookshop shelves as an NZ classic. Helen Waaka describes us with authenticity but not judgement as she takes us behind the fences, up the paths and into the households of Waitapu.