This is a terrific story about a tenacious woman who, in the 1930s, leaves New Zealand with no support and very little cash and reports on a war in China. It’s intelligent young adult fiction (though I don’t qualify as either and I loved it). Despite speaking no Chinese language, having no official capacity, being slightly lame and needing a walking stick, Iris gets right to the front-line and writes on the conditions she finds there. This is Iris Wilkinson, pen name Robin Hyde, who was a New Zealand poet, journalist and novelist. I knew her from her books; I read The Godwits Fly recently, but I had no idea she was such an audacious traveller as well.
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.
It’s the early 1900s and Pansy is living poor on the West Coast in Blackball, which apparently is a charming town these days. Pansy’s a smart kid. Smarter than her pa. Today you’d hope this would be a positive thing and she would be given every opportunity to make use of her talents, to be educated and offered the chances that would help a small town girl rise to fulfill her potential. You’d hope that someone would notice the bruising on her face and not turn away.
Ben Brown (Ngāti Mahuta, Ngāti Korokī, Ngāti Paoa) is a story teller. His stories are philosophical and luminous and funny and intellectual and they plunge from one mood to the other without missing a beat. I spent a week in a van driving around Taranaki with him recently and our conversations changed me, though it’s hard to say exactly how.
If you have read and enjoyed Jenny Pattrick’s latest, Harbouring, do go for a romp around her backlist. They’re consistently good. I’ve just reread Catching the Current and enjoyed it the second time around even more than in 2005 when it was first published.
This is a prequel to Denniston Rose, but reads as a stand-alone story based on the early life of Faroe Islander, Conrad Rasmussen—known to Denniston fans as Con the Brake. He’s tall, fair and handsome, playful, talkative, a renowned singer and teller of tales, and pretty full of himself. He excels at everything he turns his hand to, a man not to be ignored. He’s quick to temper and loyal to his friends—a lover, a hero.
Worse things happen at sea is probably the most appropriate book title ever. Whatever catastrophe happens on land you can crank up the Richter scale of disaster if it happens out on the briny. Flood, fire, psychopath, injury, grandstanding, storm, starvation, getting lost – put a ship in the background of any of these and they become so, so much worse.
I’ll admit to being nervous in approaching this book. I love Jenny Pattrick’s rousing stories of colonial New Zealand communities and I’ve walked through the mud with her characters. Like many others I was introduced to her books through Denniston Rose and Heart of Coal and Denniston became part of my mental map. The same thing happened with Landings, and Catching the Current. Pattrick offers lively characters as guides to explore our colonial history.
Her new book, Harbouring, is set amid the NZ Company’s arrival in Wellington and the establishment of the colony there. Hence the nerves. Two years ago I published Jerningham. It’s the same story, wrought from the same material. What would an expert storyteller like Pattrick make of it?
It’s two weeks ago and I am on a boat heading to a small beach on the edge of a remote bay on Aotea/Great Barrier Island. A Pōhutukawa tree fills the seaward side of the bay: in bloom and gloriously arched across a deep blue sky. We jump out on the sand and pull up the boat, looking up at a small house in the cove painted by the afternoon sun; quiet, unpeopled, and breathe a ‘thank you’ to the occupiers who tend this place with so much care. Through the lower branches of the tree, up a steep bank, a white picket fence is visible.
What a great book to follow my previous read, This Thing of Darkness. Both Thompson and Paula Morris’s book relate to the 19th Century notion of taking indigenous people from distant lands back to England to “civilise” them and show them off as curiosities. In Thompson’s book, Captain FitzRoy uplifts three Fuegians to ship home, and in Morris’s book the Rangitira travel voluntarily to England. Whichever way you look at it, this is manifest colonial exploitation.
Paula Morris is a descendent of Rangitira’s narrator, the wonderful Paratene Te Manu, Ngāti Wai, and she writes her tupuna with a sure voice. He comes across as a thoughtful and gracious man who, in 1886 while having his portrait painted by Gottfried Lindauer, relates the story of his voyage to England some twenty years before.
Sometimes you have to stick your hand up and here we go. I hereby award This Thing of Darkness the title of my best book ever.
For sheer meatiness, immersion, characterisation, research, story telling, and adventure. For the immensity of history involved. For the reach of these lives and the illumination of their development over the years and the way things build and unravel – all understandable in retrospect but so uncertain and risky at the time. For all the surrounding stuff that comes with historical fiction and the extraordinary passing detail. For the way it made me re-evaluate my life and life in this century generally. For the way it made me feel.