Where the Rēkohu Bone Sings by Tina Makereti

The books you love the most are often the hardest to review. That’s always been the case. Or the curse. To say I loved this book feels like an incredible understatement. It has stayed, pulsating, in the back of my mind days after I turned the last page. My thoughts constantly wander back to it, and I am left a little winded by the emotion of the story that overwhelms me each time.

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Where the Rēkohu Bone Sings has three main narratives running through. First is Mere’s, a young Māori woman living in 1880s New Zealand. She is on the cusp of discovering independence and love, at the cost of great sacrifice on her part. For she is in love with Iraia, the young Moriori man living on her father’s property as farmhand and all around helper. He is treated as someone lesser, an outsider, and must live with the stigma that is forced on people of Moriori descent. To cast her lot with him means giving up everything Mere has known.

In contemporary New Zealand are Lula and Bigs, twins born to their Māori mother and Pākehā (European) father. Lula has inherited her father’s pale skin, while Bigs resembles their darker skinned mother. Despite their fierce closeness from a young age, school yard taunts and real life eventually drive the two of them apart. The death of their mother might be the last saving factor of their relationship, and a chance to find out about a part of their heritage that has been buried for too long.

Linking these two is a nameless voice, a long lost soul flitting in between the lives of Mere and Iraia, and Lula and Bigs. It is heavy with sorrow and despair, but becomes infused with a certain strength as the story progresses.

Tina Makereti’s writing is beautiful. It is lyrical, but not flowery; it is delicate, but strong enough to carry the important stories that she’s weaving with it. I was especially taken with Mere and Iraia’s part of the story. They are both very young, and incredibly brave when they set off on their adventure, and I wanted to protect them from everything and anything that might crop up on their journey.Their story is a part of New Zealand history about which I am not very knowledgeable and I wanted to soak it all in.

Some facts (as gleaned by me, so please correct me if I’m wrong):

Māori are the indigenous people of New Zealand. The Moriori were the indigenous people of the Chatham,or Rēkohu Islands, a small group of islands off New Zealand’s west coast. They were a people who prized non-violence. When the Taranaki Māori colonized Rēkohu it ended in the genocide of the Moriori. Any survivors were taken back to the main land and made to work as servants and slaves. The erasure of their people brought stigma and discrimination, and Moriori descendants were forced to suffer these prejudices.

Buried history is obviously a pressing issue in this novel. Following the death of their mother, Lula feels compelled to discover more about this part of her family’s legacy. Bigs on the other hand, who has already formed a strong connection to his Māori background, finds these new developments unsettling. Makereti explores these contentions with subtle realism. Identity and family history are complicated and multi-layered, and Lula’s and Bigs’  reactions speak to that. I would have liked to see more discussion and interaction between the siblings about this topic. Lula seemed to wait years to be close to her brother again, when it does happen it is not how she envisions it.

On the other hand, Makereti stresses the importance of finding connections in unexpected places. After all, that is what family history is about. It is when she is in a London museum that Lula feels a tugging for home, and it is with newly discovered family members that she unearths a long forgotten past. Whatever she may have lost, Lula also has much to gain.

The third mysterious voice was also a compelling one for me. I enjoyed piecing the narratives together, and finding out how they all fit.Things become clearer page by page, like an image slowly crystallizing before your eyes.

I have seen reviews that mentioned it was slightly frustrating – the unknown third voice, its pace and its tone. The thing is, Where the Rēkohu Bone Sings is one of those “wallowing” books. And by that I mean you, the reader, has to wallow in it. You have to soak it all in. It’s not a race to the last page to see how all the action is tied up. All the minutiae matters.  Soaking in all the details, immersing yourself in the lives of these characters. That is absolutely where the joy of this book lies. And that’s where the heartbreak is as well. I still have to hug this book to my chest every once in awhile. If you have read it, or are going to, I would absolutely love to hear your thoughts.

P.S. For those who are curious about this topic, Makereti suggests Moriori: A People Rediscovered by New Zealand historian Michael King.

Mutuwhenua (The Moon is Sleeping)

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So today’s the last day of Diversiverse, at least where I am, and I thought I’d quickly get in at least one of the posts I had planned for it.

Mutuwhenua is one of the first novels published by Patricia Grace, New Zealand’s first female Maori writer to ever be published. I actually read this one awhile back, but it’s one of those deceptively simple stories that manage to resonate loudly long after you’ve finished it.

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The power of this story is in the narration. It has a quiet, rhythmic tone to it that is almost soothing as you read. It is not a plot-driven story, it’s a character-driven one, and if you were to go in expecting the former you would be disappointed. The prose glides along in smooth waves, and it’s easy to sink into. It’s as if you’re being told the story by mouth. It conveys the melodic beat and rhythmic repetitions of a good conversation.

It’s a coming of age story about Linda, a young Maori girl growing up in New Zealand. But unlike other coming-of-age stories what I appreciated in this one was that Linda doesn’t enter a storm of “MUST BE AGAINST EVERYTHING MY PARENTS STAND FOR” in order to establish her individual identity. Yes, she does try to distance herself from them, and make an attempt at differentiating herself, but there is still an element of respect in there between Linda and her parents which I really appreciated.

As a young girl, she feels confined, acutely aware of the image that she can’t escape, as a young Maori girl. She comes to the harsh realization that there is a gap between herself and her European school mates.

“I was glad of the excuse, that last day of primary school, to run off without saying goodbye. Running home over the hills that afternoon I realised I was going towards the only place in the world that I knew. I was glad that afternoon of the excuse to cry and stamp my feet and blame my mother for everything.” (p. 24)

It’s heart-wrenching observing Linda reaching this realization. This fear clearly travels with her into adulthood, paralysing her whenever she feels she might allow Graeme, the young man she grows to have feelings for, access to the inner circles of her life.

My favourite part was her relationship with her family. As I’ve already said, it was refreshing to see a bildungsroman rooted in cultural identity depict a young protagonist who is willing to respect their family, and the elders in their life. Grace shows that it’s possible to assert your individuality while showing respect for your family and culture, and while acknowledging that you’re part of a bigger whole. It’s not an easy journey, but an important one.

“There was no light at all, it being the night of Mutuwhenua, when the moon is hidden, when the moon goes underground to sleep. And in the darkness my thoughts were a confusion, thinking of what the old lady had said to me, thinking of my father and of what the past had given me and of what the future held.” (p. 75)

Grace’s stories are very much about the daily life, but her writing is such that the ordinary ends up becoming the extraordinary. As a piece of realistic fiction, it’s a great read, and an important one, not least because it’s by one of New Zealand’s first female Maori writers.