Every word of an astonishing new novel is a sharp talon squeeze around the heart

Whiti Hereaka said at her book launch for her new novel Kurangaituku, a re-telling of the Māori folktale “The Legend of Hatuputu and the Bird-Woman”, that it took 10 years to write. It was a story she felt had always been with her, but she wondered more about the bird-woman than Hatuputu. Halfway through her first draft she realised she wasn’t yet the writer she needed to be to tell the story. She stopped to write another book before returning to her words. Great things take time and thank goodness she gave this book all the time it needed to hatch into the gorgeous, hybrid experience that it is.

It’s a story that turns the original tale on its head. In the oral version, Hatuputu is captured by the bird-woman Kurangaituku; he eventually escapes, killing her collection of pet birds and lizards, and taking the various treasures in her cave. Kurangaituku pursues him, so he hides in a rock, and then jumps over the hot pools to escape her. When she tries to wade across the hot pools to reach him, Kurangaituku is boiled to death. All of which paints Hatuputu as the hero – the celebrated Māori warrior who triumphs over the terrible bird-woman.

“The tūī sings a different song to that of the kākā. But both sing the truth,” says Kurangaituku. It’s something I think about often, that my truth and your truth tread a fine line, meeting somewhere in the middle and wavering away again. Folktales and oral traditions are endlessly fascinating as story forms, shifting and changing over time and with each new storyteller. Hereaka plays with this idea and with the belief that gods, spirits and entities can only exist when their names and stories exist firmly within our world. “My name tells a story, a story that is familiar to you,” Kurangaituku tells the reader. “My name is my story, it is me.”

Hereaka understands theatrics—a prior career in theatre gave her an understanding of audience and performance, something that was obvious at her book launch. Clad in a dress covered in words from her book and feathers (a creation Hereaka had spent hours sewing), hair and make-up crafted to perfection, Hereaka read one of the first chapters of her book, accompanied by the talented Ruby Solly. Hereaka was Kurangaituku, every word a sharp talon squeeze around the heart; Solly’s musical accompaniment varyingly low, as if the marrow were being sucked through our bones, or high-pitched, the frantic song of the miromiro crying to its mistress. It was an electrifying experience, one that made the hairs on my arms stand up and my breath short.

Kurangaituku cannot experience time linearly, so neither must we, and Huia have done a beautiful job of creating a book that is an immersive experience. Start from one end—choose the light of miromiro or the darkness of ruru—and when you’ve reached the middle, which is also the end, turn the book upside down, back-to-front, and start again. It’s reminiscent of the choose-your-own-adventure books of my childhood: an element of fun, but also precisely what the story needed in order to be told.

There are three sides to this coin: Kurangaituku’s life in the world, her afterlife in the underworld, and Hatuputu’s story before meeting the bird-woman. You can start at either end of the book. The journey I took, starting with miromiro, felt more linear, beginning in the mortal realm and ending in the underworld, but I’d be interested to reverse the reading and see how it changed my experience.

As a writer, I often can’t help but pull the craft of the words of others apart on the page, examining every comma, every stylistic choice. With Kurangaituku, however, it felt as though the bird-woman had grabbed me and pulled me into her worlds—both the light and the dark—with a frantic insistence. “See now through my eyes. Let my words fill your mind. Let me in,” she demands of the reader, and at her will, I found myself tumbling into her consciousness, her story, her truth.

Hereaka’s skill lies not only in being an excellent storyteller but also in crafting characters who leap off the page, hold you down and insist that you listen to them. Kurangaituku does this so well, the titular character not only an “ogress,” “giant,” or a “monster” as the traditional story tells, but a woman made through the tales of others: a woman with needs and desires, self-doubt, and a thirst to know more about the world around her. This desire for knowledge brings her further into the realm of mortals, deities, and, of course, Hatuputu, the boy she loved who betrayed her. Though Kurangaituku is a mythical creature, a legend, in Hereaka’s hands she also feels incredibly real, as if you could run into her in the forests of Rotorua, stuck in her endless loop of life, death, love and revenge.

It was a pleasure to read this book, to see the threads of Hereaka’s imagination, questions, and desire for the other side of the story come together with an explosive force. A great story leaves you with questions long after the last page, and after I had devoured Kurangaituku in three feverish sittings, I sat for a long time, twisting and turning the book in my hands—light to dark, and back again—my thoughts filled with the unfortunate bird-woman’s demise. I thought about stories and truth, about how as our words change, so do characters and lives. What is truth, after all, but simply a story through which we live? As Hereaka writes, “Stories live through you and you through them,” and Kurangaituku is a story I would happily live through, again and again.

Kurangaituku by Whiti Hereaka (Huia, $35) is available in bookstores nationwide. Tomorrow in ReadingRoom: as soon as the embargo on the 2022 Ockham New Zealand national book awards lifts at 5am, we provide expert commentary and a full list of the chosen many.

Jackie Lee Morrison is a specialist brownie café owner by day, and secret scribbler by night. A British-Chinese immigrant from London, Jackie now calls Wellington home and is working towards a MA in Creative...

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