We seem to have been waiting such a long time for this book. Kāwai is truly groundbreaking and I hope that it clears the way for more stories in this historical and cultural setting. So what’s the big deal with Kāwai and why has it been so phenomenally successful?
Firstly, no one has published such an epic saga of Māori life before, and the timing now is impeccable. It seems Soutar has been coming all his life to be writing this story now (for such a time as this), when not only does he have the necessary contacts and learning and experience, but there is an audience with a huge appetite for stories and discussions of our history and people. Just look at how the bestsellers lists over the past three or four years have been dominated by things Māori. We’re open and primed for a big, readable Māori story that would have been unthinkable twenty, even ten years ago. And here it is and it’s fascinating.
Secondly, the scope of the book is wide and engaging, tracing the lives of many inter-related people down generations and told in a popular narrative style that brings the reader right into the lives of the protagonists, their inner as well as their outer lives. We’re not observing history, we’re living it. It’s a rollicking good tale of coming of age, love and betrayal, jealously etc etc, everything that makes a page-turner. And it is the first of three.
And thirdly, it feels authentic. In the way of best historical fiction, Soutar seems to have taken real events and people and built a very honest world around them, a world that seems entirely possible in this time and place and with these people. These are epic events but the story is not told, as many Māori stories are, as a legend or a cautionary tale. There are battles and great feats and violence and seduction and love, but never does Soutar stray into the world of fantasy and magic. Nor does he paint an unlikely picture of a rose-tinted utopia. This is a brutal world with a culture of cruel warfare based on revenge, which sounds like the 1700s everywhere. Soutar’s narrators may believe in portents and omens (as did nearly every person alive in centuries past) but this story has a firm grip on reality. When the taua appears out of the mist on the ocean, with the dismembered body parts draped and bleeding from the prow, there’s no magic going to save anyone.
There are no written records from these times. Few archeological remains. The only way to know about what happened in the early history of Aotearoa New Zealand is by examining carefully collated oral histories, preciously (jealously?) passed down within hapu or iwi. This history is simply not available to most people, and there are few writers, Pākehā or Māori, brave enough to say: this is my story and I am the one to make this story public. Go Monty Soutar.
It is an awesome responsibility because this book (and the series that follows) will now become our definitive narrative. It provides a framework for our understanding of the Māori world, gives us a context in which to make sense of our history and legends and smaller stories. Hopefully others will follow more easily now the door has been opened. A culture needs a thousand stories to be understood, this is just the first in this format. We are so lucky that Monty Soutar has the perseverance and diligence to do this difficult research so thoroughly and to give us a saga of such detail and colour on such a scale.
Kāwai: For such a time as this. Spot on. The time is now.