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Three women make their way across New Zealand’s North Island in this debut novel. During this time they will explore their relationship with each other, and the island’s colonial history. Our unnamed narrator has a complicated relationship with Llana her on/off girlfriend, Ashi her best friend and even with herself. She’s battling on all fronts and is struggling with the legacy of an abusive ex-boyfriend and on top of everything her period is late.
There are a lot of threads to follow in this debut and it takes a talented writer to keep them all relevant. I think on the whole she succeeds and where problems become a bit entangled or lose focus it is a deliberate case of art imitating life. Lives are messy. I wondered if the author was also trying to give the reader some idea of how it feels to be in the narrator’s head. It’s very telling that our narrator doesn’t have a name. She could name herself, but doesn’t, and that absence is important. Does the narrator feel invisible in her own life? We can tell from her narration that she is low in self-esteem and the ugly way she presents her world suggests self-loathing. If she doesn’t name herself she doesn’t exist and maybe she doesn’t want to. Her disgust is evident in the imagery of dirt and decay from stains to bodily functions.
She even depicts New Zealand in a very different way to the usual myth of a paradise filled with exceptional landscapes, freedom, relaxation and a slower pace of life. Instead she sees human’s contribution to the country like a cancer. Humans are almost parasitic, eating away at the beauty we know exists. This could be linked to the colonial heritage, an important thread in the novel. I read Post-Colonial Literature in my final year at university so I’ve come across NZ authors and Maori creation myths so it was interesting to see this modern Pakeha perspective. The author is embarrassed that she can’t use Maori place names and is having to use ‘white colonial’ substitutes. She feels guilt about making homes on stolen land. She even takes lessons in ‘the reo’ the Eastern Polynesian language spoken by Maori people. In the course of the novel she learns her own family were more involved in the New Zealand wars than she realised. This prompts an exploration of inheritance and whether we take on ancestral guilt.
The relationships of the present are equally strained and there is a claustrophobia about being stuck on a road trip, with the same people in a confined space. Something we can possibly all relate to at the moment in lockdown. The weather doesn’t help, with frequent rain keeping them all confined. There is also a triangle forming as our narrator is in a very tenuous relationship with Llana, but Llana seems very taken with our narrator’s best friend Ashi. I found it hard to like any of them so couldn’t really invest in their relationships, but I did get a creeping sense that after all the contemplation and simmering tension, someone might explode!
I did enjoy the author’s use of language though and there are flashes of something really special. Her description of the ‘Bach’ is so vivid I can see it. The description of the town of Levin is humorously vicious; ‘everywhere daytime TV can be seen, through pulled lace curtains’. The town’s population is ageing rapidly and the nursing homes are described as dead ends that it’s easier to die in, than live with. She also uses unusual descriptive phrases that are really powerful, such as ‘people clot in the waiting rooms’. This description of the local hospital takes blood imagery and uses it to show how overcrowded the hospital is, how slow the ageing population are and the impression is they’re blocking up the system. It’s like the life-force of the place is slowing down and choking it. This shows skill and a distinctive style that would make me want to read future novels by the author.
My sister-in-law is from Gisborne, one end point of this road trip, and I will be buying her a copy to ask her opinion, as she works solely with the Maori communities, I’m looking forward to chatting with her and reading further work from an interesting debut author.