Lust, land and a hitman
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."