Patricia Grace's Chappy a nuanced page-turner
Penguin Random House, $38
Reading a new novel by Patricia Grace is like lounging in a warm, comfortable bath.
In her novels, there is an evocation of times when ambitions were simple, when feelings were straightforward, when family ties were both loving and strong, and when communities were bound together by mutual support and concern.
In short, there is a strong sense of nostalgia.
It makes no difference to Pakeha readers that the milieu is a specifically Maori one, with Patricia Grace drawing imaginatively on the circumstances of her own iwi, down in the southern half of Te Ika a Maui. A part of us wishes that we all still lived in such an environment. And where else but in a Patricia Grace novel could you find the creation of a beautiful garden presented as the thing that resolves a troubled life history?
But to say that this novel deals in simple emotions and ambitions is not to say that this is a simple story or that its outlook is simple. Far from it. It is a tangled family tale spanning the years from the 1920s to the 1980s.
A young man of mixed Maori and European ancestry has come back to New Zealand to quiz his elders about his family history. He interviews at length his old grannie Oriwia. He interviews a great-uncle Tiakiwhenua, known throughout the novel as Aki. Between them, Oriwia and Aki tell nearly all the story. It starts when they are barefooted kids in the 1920s, with the grown menfolk of their family doing shearing work for Pakeha farmers. Aki goes to sea as a merchant seaman and after one voyage he brings back with him a shy Japanese man, who quickly gets called Chappy. Surprisingly Chappy blends into the Maori community and marries Oriwia. Chappy remains throughout the novel a shadowy figure. Only quite well in do we learn he is a soldier who has deserted because he does not approve of Japan's imperial conquests in China.
For all that, his relationship with Oriwia (seen with some irony by Aki) becomes the centre of the story. It's a loving marriage, but wracked by some lack of understanding between cultures, especially when Chappy is regarded as an "enemy alien" during the Second World War. There are separations. And in a younger generation, there are further cultural complications when Hawaiians marry into the whanau.
One moment I felt was stretching it a bit. That's when Aki gets to witness the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Otherwise, the story moves credibly from the time when most Maori were rural to the time when rural ancestry is a fading memory and spiritual ties to the land are compromised.
Patricia Grace is concerned to show how Maori related to the wider world on their own terms, and not necessarily through Pakeha intermediaries. The linking of Maori, Japanese and Hawaiian dramatises this.
It is incident-filled enough to be called a page-turner and nuanced in its observations.