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.

“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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Women of the Future

[May 1908]

   “I feel that I do now realise, dimly, what women in the future will be capable of. They truly as yet have never had their chance. Talk of our enlightened days and our emancipated country – pure nonsense! We are firmly held with the self-fashioned chains of slavery. Yes, now I feel that they are self-fashioned, and must be self-removed. 

 . . .Independence, resolve, firm purpose, and the gift of discrimination, mental clearness – here are the inevitable. Again, Will – the realisation that Art is absolutely self-development. The knowledge that genius is dormant in every soul – that that very individuality which is at the root of our being is what matters so poignantly. 

   Here then is a little summary of what I need – power, wealth and freedom. It is the hopelessly insipid doctrine that love is the only thing in the world, taught, hammered into women, from generation to generation, which hampers us so cruelly. We must get rid of that bogey – and then, then comes the opportunity of happiness and freedom.” 

– Katherine Mansfield: Letters and Journals
  I feel as if I’ve been given the best pep talk in – well, a very long time. How is it that this writer who lived over a hundred years ago is able to fire up my blood? For some bizarre reason, I feel the need to make her proud. To make the most of what I have, to somehow compensate for what she didn’t. To live up to her legacy of becoming whole, becoming strong, and most of all, to be free through art. 
   Sincerely,
     Lady Disdain 

Mansfield at the sea

   “I am at the sea – at Island Bay in fact – lying flat on my face on the warm white sand. And before me the sea stretches. 

   To my right – shrouded in mist, like a fairy land – a dream country, the snow mountains of the South Island; to my left, fold upon fold of splendid golden hills. Two white lighthouses, like great watching birds perched upon them. A huge yellow dog lies by me. He is wet and ruffled, and I have no boots or stockings on – a pink dress – a panama hat – a big parasol. Adelaida, I wish that you were here with me.”

– February, 1907
   That’s a journal entry from Katherine Mansfield – she’s about nineteen years old now. I found a selection of her letters and journals at a book sale recently. Don’t you just love delving into the minds of writers? 
   I can almost feel the warm white sand beneath my fingers now, see her in the pink dress and panama hat. I wish that I was there with her.    Instead of here, in the unnatural light of the computer screen, with a glazed expression willing words to come out. I think I prefer her way of spending the day.
   “I shall stay here until after dark – walking along the beach – the waves foaming over my feet – drinking a great deal of tea – and eating a preposterous amount of bread and apricot jam at a little placed called the Cliff House.” 

Sincerely,
  Lady Disdain 

"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