History of NZ decorated with anecdotes
Paula Morris’ latest novel is centred on her ancestor, Ngati Wai chief Paratene Te Manu.
As Te Manu is having his portrait painted by the bohemian painter Gottfried Lindauer, he reminisces over a fateful and eventful voyage to England that he and other chiefs made 20 years earlier.
What begins as a feted bringing together of cultures soon disintegrates into an undignified spectacle, as the realities of colonialism sully the unrealistic idealism of the missionary zeal.
London, and the other newly industrialised English cities, are viewed through the bewildered and increasingly rheumy eyes of the rangatira as dark, cold, strange places.
There are some genuine moments, but increasingly there is the unpleasant whiff of tokenism, voyeurism and exploitation.
My biggest problem with this book is probably a little unfair, in that it stems from the fact that I had just finished reading Witi Ihimaera’s The Parihaka Woman, which was a superb story.
Morris’ tale lacks story, an engaging narrative thread, and a compelling character. Te Manu is a slow burn of a protagonist. He is charming but too understated to carry the story; he is forever the witness to the dramas of others.
For all the melodrama and operatic largesse of Ihimaera’s work, it is ultimately a love story adorned with history. Morris’ book is history decorated with anecdotes.
What is lacking in narrative is counter- balanced somewhat by meta-narrative. The reader is in a position of privilege – we know more than any of the protagonists, which gives us a damning view of the early post-colonial period.
The novel is predominantly set in England and thus presents a fresh, English perspective of New Zealand history.
The South Waikato News has one copy of Rangatira to give away. Simply tell us the name of the artist who painted Paratene Te Manu’s portrait on the cover of the book, along with your name and contact details. Send to P O Box 89, Tokoroa 3444 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reviewed by Matt Bowler
BEHIND THOSE EYES: Paula Morris’s Rangatira, which is based on the life of her ancestor, Ngati Wai chief Paratene Te Manu, won the 2012 Fiction category in the prestigious New Zealand Post Book Awards.