Sunday, 4 May 2014

Where the Rēkohu Bone Sings by Tina Makereti (Vintage 2014)

In my last post about Farr’s novel, I mentioned that I had a few issues with the framing of her narrative, however in Makereti’s novel the framing device works to show the resonances of the past on the present.  A spirit, a kehua, tells his story of living on Rēhoku (Chatham Islands) and when Ngāto Tama and Ngāti Mutunga invaded his home in 1835.  The Waitangi Tribunal report, which Makereti has included at the start of her novel, states that Moriori:

“were willing to have newcomers amongst them.  Later, the insurgents attacked.  Moriori offered no resistance.  A peaceful people, with plentiful food and no competitors, Moriori had outlawed warfare centuries before, after parting from mainland Māori and settling on Rekohu.”

After the conflict, the kehua is left in-between, not yet dead but not living either.  In this liminal space the kehua is able to reach through to his descendants, and feel their confusion about the past and how it is affecting their present lives.
The kehua keeps an eye on Iraia.  Iraia lives as a slave with the Irihāpeti whanau in Queen Charlotte Sound, as his mother did when she was taken from the Chatham Islands to New Zealand.  Iraia is a similar age to Mere, and her father, Tu Irihāpeti allows them to play together despite their different social status.  However, as the children get older and become teenagers, their attraction develops into more than friendship.  This is problematic because Iraia is not considered suitable marriage material by Tu.  The narrative follows Iraia and Mere and the choices they make about their relationship in the late 1800s.
The kehua also keeps an eye on Lula and her twin brother Bigsy (William).  Lula and Bigsy’s mother, Tui, is Māori and their father is Pakeha.  Lula was born naturally, and physically appears Pakeha, Bigsy “is cut out” of his mother, and physically looks Māori.  When they are babies they feel whole together, however as they age their differences, their appearances (and who they appear to be), slowly pull them apart.  

The children are bought up in a Pakeha household and have very little knowledge of Tui’s family.  However, when Tui dies, the kids learn that she left instructions for her tangi to be held at her marae in Picton. Although Lula and Bigsy are puzzled because Tui never talked about her whanau, and only took the kids to Picton when they were babies, they respect Tui’s wishes.  It is at the marae that fragments of Tui’s and her whanau’s history and connection to the Chatham Islands comes to light.  

I haven’t come across another New Zealand novel that deals with the history of Moriori and Māori.  Lula researches the invasion from both Moriori and Māori sides using text books and oral accounts, and she also compares the invasion of the Chatham Islands to the European invasion of New Zealand.  While relating invasion and colonial histories is an incredibly fraught task, Lula’s three perspectives (Moriori, Māori and Pakeha) enable her to speak with sensitivity, while also giving hope that the past can be bought to light and talked about.
Makereti’s novel shows the elements of historical fiction that I enjoy.  It illustrates the past but it also shows how the past directly affects people now.  A lot of historical fiction just relates the past, the past becomes a foreign country that we visit and then just leave, but the most rewarding historical fiction, I think, shows us the past and then shows us how complicated an individual’s or group’s  relationship to the past can be, and how it is shaping their consciousness now. Makereti’s novel shows what people choose to remember and what they want to forget, it shows how individual subjectivities are challenged as they question who they are and where they belong, what to accept, what they leave behind, and where home is.