Chappy – book review

Chappy, by Patricia Grace

Chappy, by Patricia Grace, is a domestic story of a community whose relationships are entwined and confusing in the way real life is confusing.

“I told you that Aki was your uncle by double adoption. That first adoption was when Dorothea became mother to Moana-Rose and me, and we became his sisters.”  The timeline jumps around and the narrators switch about, it’s a rambling story that could be told by mates sitting around on old sofas with a few beers, interrupting each other and backtracking. Some incidents feel honest and factual, others edited with the retelling. This is the way family histories are, and there is truth in both.

The catalyst for the story being told is the (dare I say, Gen-Y) crisis of young Daniel in Switzerland, of New Zealand descent, wanting to find himself. He is the investigative reporter, if you like. I think the discovery of his family helps to heal him. I like to think so, anyway, although the story is not about him. “There’s a much more interesting story than one of a spoilt brat with his own bank account who had to try and kill himself…”

For me, the breadline living of the whanau that Daniel finds back home is a pretty typical mid-century NZ story, Maori or Pakeha. Rural life was precarious: a lot of self sufficiency, some number 8 wire, generosity and sharing, the value of a storyteller to an introverted community, both the welcoming and the fear of strangers. The necessity of going away and how grounded you feel when you make it back.

Chappy Star is a stranger, a Japanese stowaway on a ship. Maori seaman Aki stumbles across him and takes him home to the marae, where he finds kindred spirits. The differences between ghost-like Chappy and the warm and candid Oriwa, with whom he falls in love, are made to appear superficial – language, culture, nationality are nothing beside their attachment. Their love survives years of racially induced separation and misunderstandings. Oriwa understands this as she disentangles her family stories for Daniel. Maybe we all need to tell our lives as stories to understand them.

The novel is about roots and coming home – from Hawaii, where Aki washes up, from Switzerland where Daniel is born, and the confusion that ensues when home means two or more places. Chappy weaves between his cultural home in Japan, his adopted home in Hawaii and his spiritual home with Oriwa in New Zealand.

The story of Moonface made me cry. There is a lost child in many stories, but none so poignantly as here.  Moonface is Aki’s adored little brother.  At the end of one long afternoon, Moonface insists on following Aki to the spring, but he lies down in the ferns and falls asleep. Aki fills the billy, and when he turns around the boy is gone. In his mind, forever,  is “- the cold spring water, the silver tin, water silvered, the creaking birds, the pouring, the boy invisible, the unspeaking leaves, the trail of torches, the voices calling, the crying, the wailing of all the grandmothers in the world, the waiting, the ferny nest.”  It seems natural that Aki would absorb his lost brother into his soul to become his moral compass, the well of his tenderness. “Go home,” Moonface says, when Aki has been away at sea too long and needs to get his feet back on family ground.

Patricia Grace writes with lovely, sparse descriptions. Aki: “I was at the woodpile sawing stove-lengths from manuka trunks I’d brought down from the slopes. About mid-morning. There was mist soft-footing about the hills, grey like old photos.” It’s all you need, a whole scene implied from a good choice of words.

There’s a moral to Chappy, which is spelled out very clearly (in case you missed it) as Daniel sums up the story at the close.  He was born of the generation that left the home fires, and now is a wealthy outsider looking back in. “…I am who I am. I understand that now. I’m not about to chuck it all away and go barefoot, and I don’t wannabe a wannabe. So, no matter where I go or what else I undertake, I’ll continue to increase my understanding of this part of myself that I embrace with all my heart. I’ll keep in touch, work back and forth from wherever I am in the world and contribute from the depth and core of me.”

There you go, kids.

Little Blackbirds in the nest

I reached my camera up high above a bird’s nest and this is what I found:

The little one at the bottom fell out of the nest and didn’t make it, but Alpha and Beta are hopping around in the tree outside my window and squawking.  Ma and pa still bring them grub.

Potiki – book review

Potiki, by Patricia Grace

Not sure how I grew up in a kiwi bookshop without having read this. It would be on my list of books to recommend to new New Zealanders, as well as to oldies like me who missed it. It is a description of a rural Maori community and a way of life that most of us are probably aware is part of our history, but we haven’t been inside.  In Potiki, Patricia Grace invites us in.

This is a simple story of good verses evil, weak versus strong, county v commerce, tangata whenua v greedy imperialists.  Basically, it’s a book about the imbalance of power, told from the viewpoint of the extended rural family whose lives are threatened by the Dollarman who will bulldoze away their traditional lifestyle and smother their ancestral lands with rather obvious bad things: night clubs, golf, a zoo of trained whales and seals.  The reader needs to get past this very clichéd plot and enjoy the Maori characters, several of whom tell the story in their very distinct voices.

Roimata is the strong sensible woman at the centre of the community, and tells a lot of the story. She is a balance between her children who go away to university and come home with skills and ideas, and her husband Hemi, who believes in the old ways, working the land like his ancestors did, feeding the family from the garden and the sea, trusting in the land to provide all they need.  If school doesn’t suit the other kids, teach them traditional ways at home – Maori science and folklore. To Grace’s credit, she doesn’t paint this with a rose wash and the poverty is raw.  You do get the sense that these are people living on the edge and that subsistence living is, in the long term, unsustainable.

Roimata and Hemi’s adopted son Toko is physically handicapped but has a sixth sense, and this mystical element blurs the edges of reality enough that disbelief taints the rest of the story.  Once fantasy is out of the bag like that anything can happen, and the story entwines with myth and you don’t know what to believe.  There may be deeper parallels here, between Toki and Maui or Christ, but they take a bit of delving and this complicates an otherwise simple story.

Mary, Toko’s birth mother, is a colourful personality treated sympathetically both by Grace and her characters. She has a role in the story and the community. Her intellectual disabilities shape but don’t define her, and she thrives in the loving community.

And it is the loving community that really is the crux of the book – no one is marginalised, everyone is welcomed and you find yourself rooting for this most precarious way of life and deeply saddened to know that it is disappearing, or gone.

There are many Maori words and no glossary which has raised an issue with many readers – to me, this feels inclusive rather than alienating. Use your own sixth sense.  Or google.

Patricia Grace chooses her words well and is a beautifully understated storyteller. Potitki challenged some of my long held assumptions. I wish I had read it earlier. I went straight on to read Chappy.

Farm Holiday

New Zealand farm stay in Mahia

I haven’t been on a farm holiday since I was a kid and Kathleen and I walked a long way across the hills and the farmer’s son gave us a lift home in the helicopter. These things stay with you.

So last week instead of our pre-Christmas family long weekend blobbed by a lake, this year I thought we’d go for some kiwi action and booked three days on a farm in Mahia and it was everything a farm holiday should be.

There was a good looking and friendly young farmer in stubbies and a rugby shirt – a bit of confusion when my son said he was saving to go the world cup next year – World cup’s not next year? Oh, soccer? The football/rugby divide. It’s real.

His most hospitable wife wandered past, with baby farmers in tow (the blondie dressed like her dad and keeping those dogs in line) to check we had everything we needed in the glampy shearers’ quarters which were spanking clean, very basic, and just perfect for a family of 6 unloading a stack of books, a football, a few board games and a well stocked chilli bin.

We “helped” sort and drench the lambs,  watched sheep shearing and the rounding up of the cows. There were smart dogs doing their thing at the shrill whistle of the shepherd and pet pigs, a pony. We rode trail bikes up hill tracks for breathtaking views.

The same things I did on a farm holiday as a kid and I thought nothing had changed, until our 2017 farmer explained the native bush replanting in the gullys, the erosion protection, the focus on environmental care.  I think slash and burn was still in fashion when I was young.

We had Uncle Ted along from Canada for a bit of a kiwi experience, so on the rainy day while the grass got drunk we walked the Nikau rainforest and soaked in Morere Hot Springs and the following day, with all the leaves sparkling, we walked the circuit at Kinikini, in lush native bush.

I reckon a farm holiday should be on every family’s list.  I’m a Wellington city girl and have spent limited time on farms – childhood visits, a few friends on farms growing up, an occasional horse trek, thistle pulling jobs  – but there have always been hills with dots in the background calling me closer. It comes with being a New Zealander.

Standing in the sheep sheds with the dogs and the farmers felt like finding my roots.

 

Sheep shearing New Zealand.jpg
Fast, expert sheep shearing on Mahia farm

https://www.bookabach.co.nz/28964

Native Bush.jpg
Kinikini loop track, Mahia Peninsula scenic reserve

http://www.doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/places-to-go/east-coast/places/mahia-peninsula-scenic-reserve/things-to-do/mahia-peninsula-scenic-reserve-track/

 

 

The Boy Behind the Curtain – book review

The Boy Behind the Curtain, by Tim Winton

Tim Winton is a shy bloke. He’s a West Australian surfer who has list of accolades for his literary work and by all accounts has been very industrious, often behind-the-scenes, in saving the wild, natural spaces of Australia. All credit to him for this. I feel I should love him.

I think the reason I don’t might be the shyness.

The Boy Behind the Curtain – what does that promise if not a great reveal? He’s going to let us in and introduce us to the man behind That Eye, The Sky, Cloudstreet, Dirt Music. (All great reads, BTW, told by a thinking Australian). But does The Boy Behind the Curtain fulfill its promise and take us into his head?  Here are a collection of good stories, grouped together as an autobiography, but I’m not feeling personal passion. He’s still a writer telling stories at a narrator’s arm’s length.

The first two chapters, on his habit of pointing a gun at passers by from behind the curtain and an endless ramble on 2001: A Space Oddessy were an odd opening choice, neither seemed to illustrate a thread. I suppose he became an author, so had people in his sights, and there was a good line about space junk “every new marvel is on its way to being landfill” that could lead to his later environmentalism. But do these incidents define his childhood enough to warrant this focus?

It’s a strange place to start.

There are a great couple of chapters on near fatal accidents – a stranger’s, his father’s and his own, which are personal and raw. But then there are pages on his childhood car, a huge chunk on Sunday religion which yes, must have played a big part in his life but could have been much tighter in the telling.

All through this book I’m waiting for something. We hear about his dad – including a rather personal incident I’ll bet his dad would rather be forgotten, we get a mention of a sibling. His mum gets a wee look in. There is a hint of a wife somewhere in the distance. At some stage there’s bound to be a bit about writing books, do you think? He’s “Australian’s greatest novelist” according to the blurb (Peter Carey, anyone?)  Family and writing – two pretty big topics. So back to the book…

There is a long essay about a lecturer of whom he is rather scathing during her tenure, seeming to agree with his classmates that “at the time they felt they’d learnt nothing useful from her.” But she goes on to be famous and Winton is almost sycophantic in his retrospective regard for this “genteel old lady” (she was 55. Watch it, Tim). We get stories of her literary successes, her book launches, her promotional and business style, her clever repartee. This is the behind-the-curtain writing story we don’t get regarding Winton himself.  There is barely a mention of his writing before he is on a cool environmental crusade and is suddenly billed as the “celebrity activist”  brought out to bring in the crowds, the bait to get the press along. Hang on – when, how, did he get famous? Is he too modest to tell us that all this time he was writing and getting accepted by publishers, growing a following, receiving awards?

And, I have to know. Where is the love?  On page 189 he goes whale watching with his wife, to whom we have not been, and never are introduced. They met at school, she’s a nurse. Call me a romantic, but who you love and how you love and what happens to you through love and how you deal with love’s confusions is intrinsic to who you are.  We may have been invited behind the brick wall, but the curtain is firmly pulled. This enormous omission frustrated me throughout the book.

But on to the good bits, of which there are many.

His environmental activism in saving a remote West Australian reef is an inspiring essay. The decency and and camaraderie of those involved, even among opponents, is heartening. He calls it a “lesson in personal prejudices,” and we’ve probably all been there.

Winton always writes beautifully of landscape and seascape.  There are lovely passages of littoral regions. I looked this up, it technically means the shore line but he put in my mind an evocative image of that magic place where the wet sand meets the dry, or where the scrubby edge of desert meets the salt pans. “The littoral – that peculiar zone of overlap and influx…”

He shares the aspect of his daily life that includes dolphins, whales and all kinds of sea creatures (but not the wife, children, mother, friends – should I read something into that?).  “The Wait and the Flow” piece is a sufie/writing metaphor, and I guess the “curtain” of the title is also a surfy nod – that mysterious space behind a breaking wave.

And the whole book is scattered with read-them-twice metaphors. He found the story of Space Odyssey “a big shiny wheel that seemed a little short of hand-holds” (I take it back, maybe it was a defining moment), a Hillman sedan that “smelt like an abandoned cinema” – we had one of those. Urban greenies and rural business people are “the facially pierced and the bark-knuckled”. I like the indignity he suffers when kicked out the the Coral Bay pub for being barefoot after 6 p.m. There are standards.

He ends with a metaphor of an Art Gallery visit – child to man, which seems retrospectively contrived for the theme. He first enters the NGV barefoot and cowering but years later strides out “like a man in boots”.

Most of these chapters have been published before.  As a collection of articles they are interesting, sometimes provoking. But they are a strange choice for a  autobiography, billed on the cover as:  “A deeply personal book, one that throws much light on the reclusive Winton as a man and as a writer.”  It really doesn’t. The curtain twitches, but we only glimpse the outline of the boy.

 

Heloise – book review

Heloise, by Mandy Hager

Here it is!  Hot off the press, the Christmas book for your intelligent friends, the perfect answer to the question – read anything good recently?

In Heloise, Mandy Hager retells the ancient, true story of Heloise & Abelard,  a love affair between two brilliant, medieval French scholars.

Heloise of Argenteuil is my kind of heroine: she’s a thinker, smart and ambitious, she knows what she wants (education) and is argumentative and forthright.  But because she was born around 1100 she has a totally different frame of reference to a modern heroine and she understands the world through a filter of medieval religion. Everything starts with an understanding of God. That axiom makes her humble, deeply compassionate, with a strong morality. I can’t help thinking that if Heloise had been born this century she would have set the whole world ablaze.  She is a heroine to applaud.

The story opens with Heloise, aged 5, shackled in a pig sty.  She is rescued by her Uncle Fulbert who takes her to a nunnery and eventually to live with him in Paris. Her legend grows as she hunts scholars and philosophers to feed her mind, and eventually hones in on the academic genius of the day – Peter Abelard.

I found lots to interest me in this book. The love story is fabulously confusing, twisted, ultimately unfulfilling and terribly disappointing. What a prick (just saying). But the book’s setting is equally beguiling with cloisters, nunneries, ancient universities and wonderful descriptions of Île de la Cite in Paris, where “the houses are planted as tight as podded seeds.”  Underneath it all is a strong academic backbone – education in the middle ages meant debate and argument, you proved things were true by philosophical logic as much as science.  Educated people of the day had a quote for everything – I know so few people now who remember quotes, and no one who has the mots justes to illuminate a point in debate as beautifully as do Heloise and Abelard.

The background history is a powerful tide that carries the story along. The whole of France is in a state of religious upheaval as the State and Church grab power, redistribute wealth and rearrange laws to keep control of the masses. It all sounds a rather familiar tune, playing down the centuries. If your interest is in history the detail here will add real zing.

Mostly, I loved the complexity of the characters and how they were immersed their times. In an age of sanctioned domestic violence, the kindly Uncle Fulbert recommends Abelard beat Heloise if she doesn’t perform her studies correctly. Fulbert gets old and bitter and resentful of his young charge, betrayed, he also beats her senseless and yet she continues to love him in a complicated way. From Fulbert’s ambitious friend Stephen de Garlande I expected betrayal but he remained surprisingly steadfast to Heloise, a better man than expected. 

And so, I come to Peter Abelard, the great theologian and scholar, the rock star of the Cathedral school of Notre-Dame, the lover of Heloise. Even now I don’t know how I feel about him. Part of me wants to boo, but like Heloise I found his brilliance extraordinarily attractive.  He is impulsive and calculating. He saves and deserts. He is a loving rapist. On balance, I think he was a totally nasty piece of work, a man with huge natural arrogance that is exacerbated by his sycophantic followers.  Or perhaps he is driven to madness, and deserves sympathy and understanding? Mandy Hager leaves us to decide.  I think I will leave it to Heloise.

The Sellout – book review

The Sellout, by Paul Beatty

“This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything.”

Hackles up, right? But this book won the Booker Prize, so remember that opening line. It will be handy at Quiz Night.

Paul Beatty’s The Sellout continues in this sarcastic, racist vein, blitzing through page after page of flippant, un-PC banter to the last chapter, which is appropriately titled “Unmitigated Blackness”. That pretty much sums up the book. Personally I believe with every generation we are moving towards a “post-racist” world – obviously way too slowly for Beatty and I accept that anger, but will this diatribe help?

If you’re a sensitive PC whitey, prepare for an uncomfortable read.

Here’s my caveat though: I read the The Sellout because the writing is brilliant.  I squirmed for about 30 pages. Then, like five minutes into a Shakespearean play,  I clicked, and began to enjoy the wit behind the colloquialisms and pop-culture language. Although I never laughed out loud (you probably need to be American for that) I was amused by the stand-up comedy style gags.  Bear with it – if you’re struggling to make it past the prologue, soothe your hackles, go with the super-quick flow, allow yourself to laugh.

I found myself rooting for the narrator, a damaged (his father hog-ties him to teach him disadvantage), intellectual farmer who reinstates slavery and segregates his town. Why? He finds people are better behaved. It brings a sense of community. He thinks it’s worth a try. He’s a good man, I felt for his tribulations.

The supporting characters are sharp and larger than life: his father a maniac sociologist with a  “doo-wop base deep” voice who terrifies his son in intellectual debate and uses him as a subject in his social experiments – if he publicly thrashes the boy, will anyone come to his aid?  (Um, no. Turns out the bystander effect has a twist in the black community, they join in the thrashing).  But his father is also a “nigger whisperer” – just as it sounds, he coxes people back from the edge.

Fading TV personality Foy Cheshire,  (“Foy was no tree of knowledge, at most he was a bush of opinion,”)  rewrites classics: Huckleberry Finn is rearranged with the word “nigger” changed to “warrior” and “slave” to “dark skinned volunteer.”  Which got me thinking I might have enjoyed The Sellout more if “nigger” was replaced by “black,” throughout, but there I go again, missing the point.

There is an aged actor, Hominy, who volunteers for slavery,  a group of black intellectuals who meet at Dum Dum Donuts, the one-true-love bus driver Marpessa who is married to a gangsta rapper. All fully formed and sprouting their racist opinions on each page.

The story line is just a platform for the characters and the gags: the town name of Dickens is removed from the map and our narrator gets it reinstated; he goes to the High Court for slave owning. And through it all the characters weave and swear and get themselves in and out of ludicrous situations.

Towards the end Paul Beatty explains the reason why I found this book is so difficult to read.  A black comedian at Dum Dum Donuts berates a white couple for laughing at his jokes: “What the fuck are you interloping motherfuckers laughing at?”   And: “Do I look like I’m fucking joking with you? This shit ain’t for you. Understand? Now get the fuck out! This is our thing!”

Beatty has written a brilliant book, but racially segregated to such an extent that I’m afraid I  have to agree with the comedian. This shit ain’t for me.