Lust, land and a hit­man

The Northland Age - - Local Arts / News - By Pe­ter Jack­son

Mark Cham­ber­lain will launch his new novel, Whenua, at Kaitaia’s li­brary (at Te Ahu) at 10.30am to­mor­row. And once again he has pro­duced a yarn that will res­onate with his Far North au­di­ence.

That does not mean it will have ge­o­graph­i­cally or so­cially lim­ited ap­peal. Whenua is a story about the im­por­tance of land, to 19th cen­tury Ma¯ori, for whom it was life it­self, and to Euro­pean im­mi­grants, to many of whom it rep­re­sented the op­por­tu­nity to es­cape the grind­ing poverty (and in­equal­ity) of the life they were es­cap­ing.

The lead im­mi­grants in this story are Ir­ish, a race that might well have more in com­mon with Ma¯ori than many peo­ple ap­pre­ci­ate, sea­soned with lash­ings of lust, not a lit­tle vi­o­lence, dreams that are des­tined to be dashed, and even a hit­man.

Much of this is pos­si­bly be­yond Cham­ber­lain’s per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence (al­though one would not bet too lav­ishly on that), but while the story is fan­tasy, it might well open some 21st Cen­tury eyes to the im­pact on Ma¯ori of the ar­rival of Euro­peans, and their de­struc­tion of one land­scape as they set about cre­at­ing an­other.

A novel it might be, but Whenua goes a long way to ex­plain­ing the anger that per­sists within Ma¯oridom to­day, fu­elled not only by the loss of land but the ‘rape’ of that land by im­mi­grants who had scant re­gard for the Ma¯ori way of life, and the tur­moil cre­ated by the ef­forts of the mis­sion­ar­ies (in­clud­ing Kaitaia’s own Joseph Matthews, whose no doubt apocryphal brush with can­ni­bal­ism at the hands of Te Rarawa makes a brief ap­pear­ance) to con­vert the hea­then.

The lead roles are played by Ma­ha­rangi (Ngati Kahu), who be­comes in­creas­ingly mil­i­tant in his de­fence of his peo­ple’s tra­di­tional way of life and de­ter­mi­na­tion to save it from ex­tinc­tion, and his in­ex­orable alien­ation from his fa­ther Tukaki, and young Ir­ish woman Kitty O’Rourke, whose far from easy pas­sage from poor im­mi­grant to wealthy vic­tim of a bru­tal, avari­cious hus­band might have sprung from the imag­i­na­tion of Thomas Hardy.

The reader can see what’s com­ing, but the story evolves with the sense of in­evitabil­ity that Hardy made his own. And from the start it is a New Zealand story, the tale of a clash of cul­tures that con­tin­ues to colour the world in which the 21st cen­tury reader lives.

Cham­ber­lain clearly has em­pa­thy with Ma¯ori and Ir­ish alike, al­though his view of his own an­ces­try is not al­ways flat­ter­ing. He re­sists the temp­ta­tion to pro­duce win­ners and losers, al­though he man­ages to blend his dis­parate in­gre­di­ents to a point that sug­gests faith in the fu­ture of a so­ci­ety that has not al­ways rubbed along as well as many would like to imag­ine.

He cov­ers a lot of ground, from Ma¯ori re­bel­lion to a board­ing house in Auck­land, the tri­als and tribu­la­tions of a young school teacher try­ing to make his way in the wilds of North­land, and a young Ma¯ori wife and mother who takes a much more prag­matic view of the world in which she finds her­self than does her hus­band.

A novel it might be, but it also of­fers some­thing of a his­tory les­son, and not for the first time re­veals Cham­ber­lain’s abil­ity to see in­side the hearts and minds of young and old. And it be­trays his em­pa­thetic un­der­stand­ing of hu­man na­ture, with all its strengths and weak­nesses.

He has writ­ten his story as a not un­sym­pa­thetic wit­ness to events that, with some ex­cep­tions, are prob­a­bly not far re­moved from the facts of 19th cen­tury New Zealand, and presents all sides for the reader to judge.

Per­haps he has left room for a se­quel, al­though the recipe would need to change sig­nif­i­cantly. It would be nice to know, how­ever, how suc­ceed­ing gen­er­a­tions fared. More re­cent his­tory would pro­vide plenty of op­por­tu­ni­ties for clashes of op­pos­ing philoso­phies.

And, not sur­pris­ingly per­haps for a school teacher by trade, Cham­ber­lain chucks in a cou­ple of words that might be new to the av­er­age reader. Try atra­bil­ious and con­cate­na­tion. You’ll find them both in the dic­tio­nary.

"A novel it might be, but it also of­fers some­thing of a his­tory les­son, and not for the first time re­veals Cham­ber­lain’s abil­ity to see in­side the hearts and minds of young and old."

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from New Zealand

© PressReader. All rights reserved.