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.

Brother, who art thou?: “Lullaby” by Bernard Beckett

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Lullaby is a finalist for the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adult Fiction. And it’s easy to see why. It opens with Theo, sitting in a hospital room with a therapist. His twin brother, Rene, has just been involved in an accident that has left him on the brink of death, with his brain severely damaged. Theo has been proposed with the choice of saving his brother. All he needs to do, in order to ensure that his brother will have a functioning brain, is allow the doctors to transfer a copy of his memories into that of his brother’s.

Without delving too deeply into the scientific realism of this premise (I am no neurologist), this book centers around questions of memory as individual identity, as well as memory as a collective constructed reality. These are intriguing questions and kept me hooked for the duration of the book. Memory is a fascinating, and frequently unreliable, thing. We rely on it so absolutely for our daily lives, and yet there are so many ways in which it fails us – sometimes even without our being aware of it. How many times, for example, have you revisited an event in the past only to find that you remember things differently to how your friends or family remember it? And how much value does our memory of a person’s behavior or personality influence our perception of them? And what happens when that memory s flawed?

As a young girl, one of the lobby security guards in the apartment building we lived in used to scare me. I don’t know what it was, but there was something about him that intimidated me. He picked up on this, and for his own amusement, used to try and scare me every time I had to pass him. I remember how he would laugh gleefully whenever I jumped or startled. I would dread having to come across him. In fact, I despised him so much I used to fantasize about him getting into all sort of mishaps. One that stands out the most is thinking, with relish, how he might have to fix a drain pipe, and imagining its contents raining down on him in a filthy deluge. It was immensely satisfying to the younger me. I remember mentioning this to my brother years later, only to have my brother remark that he had a similar “fantasy” as well. It struck me, then, how much our joint hatred of this man had culminated, from different processes, into a shared thought.It also strikes me that it could easily be the other way around – that my brother and I had discussed the best (worst) possible revenge to take the guard, and over time convinced ourselves that we’d thought of it on our own.

We believe our memories are our own, and our perceptions of the self is built on them. What happens then when those memories are inaccurate? And what happens when memories overlap, in all their inaccuracy? These are the questions Theo is forced to ask himself as he tries to decide on his brother’s fate. As Theo sits in a hospital room with a psychiatrist, talking of his past, we get to see how he and his twin brother played the usual twin pranks, spending entire days switching identities, convincing everyone else, and at times, even convincing themselves.

The frustrating thing, perhaps, about this book is that, while it asks a lot of questions, it doesn’t really answer many of them. Bernard Beckett is apparently known for his open-ended narratives. It’s not something that detracts from the whole but, personally, I would’ve liked a few answers sprinkled in there. Having said that, however, I will say this is an excellent and thought-provoking read, and I’d recommend it to everyone and their dog.

“Sometimes I felt crazy too.”

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Sylvie feels invisible. Her sister, “Calamity” Cate, is suffering from mental illness. It’s wreaking havoc on the family.Cate is lost in her nightmarish world, and her parents are both drained by this situation. Sylvie’s swept up into the eye of the storm, feeling far too much like a negligible speck. School isn’t much better, either, where she feels out of place and visible for all the wrong reasons. So, Sylvie decides to undergo a makeover. The new Sylvie will be bold and throw caution to the wind. More importantly, she’ll be noticeable. This, of course, doesn’t come without its own set of consequences.

I love how Kaeli Baker has created a flawed, but endearing character in Sylvie. She is absolutely in a difficult position; she is going through things that no one at her age should be going through alone. At the same time, she reacts in quite selfish ways, and is often oblivious to the goings-on around her. Her decisions are impulsive and misguided. There were times when I just wanted to reach in, grab her face, and command her to take care of herself. It’s heartbreaking to think about how many youngsters are out there, isolated in their experiences, and unable to vocalize their pain, or trying to externalize it in ineffective ways.

Living with mental illness is difficult, but this novel shows that this can also be true for those living with someone suffering from a mental illness. Cate’s mental illness is not at the center of the novel; it’s the effects of it that Baker focuses on, and it’s a good exploration. Watching Sylvie’s family struggle to keep it together is hard, but from the outsider perspective I had as a reader, at times it seemed almost inevitable. Their suppressed emotions break out in loud and explosive actions, or in quiet, insidious ways that eat away at each of them. It’s an honest exploration, and Baker does not try to cover anything up in pretty paper.

The interactions between the younger characters were a little less real for me, however. There were times when the dialogue felt a little unnatural and jilted. Some of the development also feels slightly rushed. I can appreciate that this is a shorter novel, however, and as such there’s only so much space to work with.

I think a lot of young readers will benefit from reading this. Not only does it highlight the importance of reaching out for help, it also encourages reaching out to help others. There isn’t much discussion about mental illness and adolescents, especially in the New Zealand school setting. This book takes step to change that.

“Bliss” by Katherine Mansfield – a breakdown

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Katerine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield’s stories are like paper flowers. Seemingly fragile, oozing simplicity, but a closer look reveals the complexity that went into the construction, the precision and accuracy that achieves the deceptive simplicity that is characteristic of her stories.

Bliss centres around Bertha Young, thirty years old and resisting the inexplicable need “to run instead of walk, to take dancing steps on and off the pavement.” There is no explanation for the extreme elation that suddenly invades Bertha as she makes her way home.

The stream of consciousness grips as tightly as this overwhelming joy has gripped Bertha. Mansfield really excels at this narrative form, and she knows just how much to put in, and how much to leave out.

“‘No, that about the fiddle is not quite what I mean,’ she thought, running up the steps and feeling in her bag for the key – she’d forgotten it, as usual – and rattling the letter-box. ‘It’s not what I mean, because – Thank you, Mary’ – she went into the hall.”

It’s so very life-like, this fractured thought process and Bertha springs into life so adamantly, and if she wasn’t real to you in the first paragraph, then she certainly is now. And it is this realness that’s so very captivating.

Mansfield’s stories are always tailored with the trappings of daily life – all the quotidian details that you don’t really pay attention to in your routinely adventures, but set within the context of the bigger picture they make a very rich tapestry indeed.

“Mary brought in the fruit on a tray and with a glass bowl, and a blue dish, very lovely, with a strange sheen on it as though it had been dipped in milk.”

I often refer to Mansfield’s writing as stop-and-smell-the-roses writing, because it feels like she’s urging you to take a moment and really look at the trivial details of life. And then she’ll paint them with a brush that will render them magical, almost gem-like in their sudden ability to shine where they didn’t before.

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She dots daily life with these fascinating details, and then brings you down to reality. There is gentle irony in the way she satirizes her own characters for fancying things that mightn’t be there.

“She hardly dared to look into the cold mirror – but she did look, and it gave her back a woman, radiant, with smiling, trembling lips, with big, dark eyes and an air of listening, waiting for something . . . divine to happen . . . that she knew must happen . . . infallibly.”

Everyone’s prone to a little whimsy, a little fantasizing, and none more so than Mansfield’s characters. More than the English teachers who analyze these stories, it’s the characters in them that infuse things with an overripe magic, and symbolize things left and right.

“At the far end, against the wall, there was a tall, slender pear tree in fullest, richest bloom; it stood perfect, as though becalmed against the jade-green sky. Bertha couldn’t help feeling, even from this distance, that it had not a single bud or a faded petal.

. . . And she seemed to see on her eyelids the lovely pear tree with is wide open blossoms as a symbol of her own life.”

On the beauty and perfection of this unassuming pear tree is what Bertha hinges her entire night. She and her husband will be entertaining dinner guests, a few close artistic friends, and “a find” of Bertha’s, Pearl Fulton. Mysterious, sophisticated, whom “Bertha had fallen in love with . . . as she always did fall in love with beautiful women who had something strange about them.”

And so, do we finally come to the source of Bertha’s ecstasy? Is it the strange Miss Fulton who has Bertha in such raptures, feeling the painful intensity of life? Mansfield never says so. Instead she points to more of Bertha’s wishful thinking as she imagines there’s a common feeling between herself and her newest guest, an understanding of just how wonderful this night is.

“But Bertha knew, suddenly, as if the longest, most intimate look had passed between them – as if they had said to each other: ‘You, too?’ – that Pearl Fulton, stirring the beautiful read soup in the grey plate, was feeling just what she was feeling.”

Moving through the steps of the dinner party, Bertha struggles to contain her glee. She watches her friends whom she loves, but knows that they can’t quite understand what she and Pearl are experiencing. The reader, too, is excluded from this bubble. We never quite know why Bertha is so ecstatic, though we are, at least, more clued in than her guests.

This scene is particularly exquisite, because it allows us to eavesdrop in the various tidbits of conversations that Mansfield dangles before us. We are at the dinner party, too, though we are privy to more than the others.

Bertha waiting for a “sign” from Pearl, believes it to be a momentous occasion when Pearl asks to see the garden, something “so exquisite on her part that all Bertha could do was to obey.” Finally, she can show her companion in this unique experience the axis on which this magical night spins: the pear tree.

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“How long did they stand there? Both, as it were, caught in that circle of unearthly light, and understanding each other perfectly, creatures of another world, and wondering what they were to do in this one with all this blissful treasure that burned in their bosoms and dropped, in silver flowers, from their hair and hands?

For ever? – for a moment? And did Miss Fulton murmur: ‘Yes. Just that. Or did Bertha dream it?”

And so we reach the home stretch. The day is about to close up again. Bertha has been flitting through it on imaginatively strung trapeze threads. She longs to tell her husband, who has only been ice towards Pearl Fulton, of her special new friend, of what they have shared, and the thought of being alone with her husband thrills and scares Bertha.

“For the first time in her life Bertha Young desired her husband.”

It seems that Bertha’s latent desires for Miss Fulton have manifested in an unlikely urgency for her husband. The pear tree now has a double meaning; with its full blossoms, reaching for the moon, it is no longer just a symbol for Bertha’s perfect night. The giddy day has culminated in this moment of sexual awakening.

And yet, Bertha will not be free to end her night with illusions. Life is not that generous.  Bertha Young, only a girl as her name suggests, farewells her guests, “feeling that this self of hers was taking leave of them forever”, for with the taste of desire she believes she has finally stepped into the adult world. Perhaps this is where she was heading, as a young girl giddily anticipates a milestone birthday, perhaps Bertha sensed that her next step into womanhood was nigh.

Womanhood, when it does arrive, is bittersweet. Because, secluded in the hallway, is beautiful Miss Fulton, more womanly and sophisticated than Bertha, in the arms of Bertha’s husband. It is a shock to both Bertha and the reader. Once Miss Fulton, too, leaves Bertha is left with her realization. All of the magic of the night is stripped away, all of the blissful ignorance shredded, and Bertha is only left with a world that she does not truly understand.

“But the pear tree was as lovely as ever and as full of flower and still.”

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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.

Rosemary Summers has writer’s block. Her thesis on Victorian Gothic Lit has come to a standstill. To rejuvenate her ideas, and salvage any remains of her once close bond with her recently deceased grandfather in the process, she decides to visit his grand, but crumbling home, Magpie Hall. Like all proper Gothic houses, Magpie Hall has a few dirty secrets, one of them being Rosemary’s great-great-grandfather, Henry Summers’ dubious dealings in his first wife’s death.

This book’s most striking aspect is the setting; Magpie Hall with its windswept plains and creaking foundations was a suitably Gothic backdrop for the story. The house is overflowing with ghosts, be they symbolic or literal ones.

Rosemary’s story alternates with that of her great-great-grandfather’s as a young man newly arrived from London, trying to make a life in New Zealand. I found Henry’s, and his soon-to-be-wife, Dora’s storyline more intriguing than Rosemary’s. I was just as curious as Rosemary to solve the great mystery surrounding her great-great-grandfather’s relationship with his first wife.

Henry Summers is a collector of curiosities, acquiring animals and objects unique to each of the cultures he encounters. Even more intriguingly, he is also a collector of tattoos, a physical art form that was apparently all the rage in Victorian England after some members of the Royal family brought them into fashion. His famous taxidermy collection, along with his skills and passion for the process is passed down to his great grandson, and from him to Rosemary.

Magpie Hall is a treasure trove of Gothic references and any fan of this particular genre will be delighted to recognise all the nods to the Gothic greats. It ticks all the boxes for a creepy, Gothic tale : a lone, young woman in an isolated house creaking with ghosts from its past, surrounded by questionable characters who might be out to do her more harm than good. And yet. Now we come to the knot in the thread. And yet, the story falls flat. Despite all these ghostly trappings of her past, Rosemary’s story failed to deliver a satisfying revolution.

 [MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD]

The revelation of Rosemary’s past, and her part in her sister’s death, which adds an extra layer of unease to the tale and boosts Magpie Hall’s creepiness factors happens near the end of the book. This detracts from the story considerably. I think it could have been mended by revealing the secret earlier, or simply by giving it the stronger conclusion that it deserved.

Instead, Rosemary continues to be quite churlish in the way she handles the situation. Her lack of maturity, as well as her inability to accept any responsibility was disappointing to read. I can’t help envisioning how much more effective Rosemary’s narrative would have been had she been allowed to reach a point of contention regarding her role in her sister’s death. As it is, it’s simply left hanging, and Rosemary continues to turn a blind eye to it, right till the very end of the story.

She connects more strongly with her idea of her great-great-grandfather’s wife, Dora. In fact, the book’s ending, of Rosemary adding the same tattoo of a bird that she believes Dora Summers may have also had, only further emphasizes her lack of growth. When Rosemary arrives at Magpie Hall, it is with her head full of ghost stories, and her heart ready to cast herself as a player in them; by the time she leaves, things are in the same state of affairs. Rosemary’s head is still in the clouds, and she is still as narrow-sighted as when we first meet her.

The lack of a strong ending was doubly disappointing considering all that the novel had to offer, and considering the preceding Gothic novels that it persisted taking a page out of. There is neither redemption nor learning from past mistakes. In Northanger Abbey Catherine Moralnd learns that there is a line between reality and fiction; in Wuthering Heights, Cathy and Hareton’s blossoming relationship promises a bright future to counter the havoc caused by Catherine and Heathcliff; in Jane Eyre a love that was obstructed by lies is made to overcome those lies. Magpie Hall, though full of potential, does not achieve anything of this kind. Despite this unfortunate lack of a conclusion, it is still a good ghost story, and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for a chilling story for a rainy day.

"Mansfield" by C.K. Stead



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Dear Reader,


I have to say I absolutely loved this book. Almost everything about it appealed to me instantly – the writing, the setting, the characters. It has a blinding literary cast – T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, Bertrand Russell and several others. 


How, I ask you, can you not drool?


As the title might suggest, this novel is about Katherine Mansfield, the New Zealand born writer who spent much of her time in England. She is a writer who is considered to have defined the modern short story. And, indeed, her stories are like nothing else.


However, this story is about the writer who created those stories. And any reader knows what it’s like to want more of a writer, to want all of them even. With this novel Stead manages to give Mansfield’s readers a little of that ‘more’.


The blurb reads: “Spanning three years in the life of the writer Katherine Mansfield during the First World War, this novel follows the ups and downs of her relationship with Jack Middleton Murry and her struggle to break through as a writer. As her brother and lovers are drawn into the conflict, Mansfield becomes more and more determined to write the ‘new kind of fiction’ which she feels the times demand.”


Stead focuses on the three years of Mansfield’s life in which her own writing was undergoing a transformation. I absolutely loved Stead’s writing style – it was so direct and concise, but managed easily and clearly weave the images in my head. The characters, too, just came to life on the page as I read. Maybe it’s the fact that they are actual literary figures, and I’d read so much about them beforehand that it was easy to see the form and shape they took in this novel. In any case, it was almost a thrilling experience. Maybe it’s the fan girl in me, but I was very excited to see those literary names appear as characters in this novel, and to see their temperaments and manners imprinted on the page.


Stead manages to capture Mansfield’s tone and language quite well. Mansfield is renowned for her cutting wit and sometimes cruel satire and there is evidence of that in this novel. The only thing I didn’t really like was that almost every male that she came into contact with wanted to jump into bed with her, or was attracted to her in some way. I think that’s why T.S. Eliot was my favorite out of the male characters portrayed here – he managed to maintain a cool, but friendly distance. (His gentle and patient disposition might also have had something to do with it.) 


This is a novel that every KM fan should read – and it’s one they probably will want to read to, if they call themselves a KM fan. While it doesn’t really add to any knowledge of her life that has already been printed before, it does offer a tantalizing image into Mansfield’s everyday life, and more importantly – and more excitingly – into her mind. It’s always fun to ponder how one of your favorite authors lived and acted, what they thought and worried about; in that sense this novel is an indulgence that any Mansfield fan would be eager for. 


3.5 out of 5 manuscripts 


Sincerely,

  Lady Disdain