Pātea in South Taranaki. Just under 100 km from New Plymouth; just over 60 km from Wanganui. Gallant things feature in this little (about 1200 persons) town: the spacious, stylish Aotea Upangunui / Museum of South Taranaki; a great cafe with a positively Edwardian washroom; an adjacent art gallery; the fabled Pātea Māori Club; Kim Jarrett’s Garden of Tutunui whale-rib sculpture, on the corner where SH3 sidesteps towards Waverley.
And a separate paragraph for the 90-year-old, wondrously improbable concrete and plaster replica of the Aotea Canoe, perched 3m above the footpath, with its ten occupants staring stiffly towards the South Island. It used to be a laddish Saturday night prank to climb up and turn some of the figures round so they were facing Mt Taranaki instead. They made their own fun in those days.
I’m banging on about these positives because Pātea faces lots of negatives. The huge freezing works shut down with brutal abruptness four decades back. Its UK owners pretty much walked away, leaving an asbestos-poisoned hulk and half the town’s wage-earners out of a job.
The usual economic and social issues followed. Shops closed in multiples; the main street is still largely a succession of empty windows. Families packed up and went; the excellent high school’s and primary school’s rolls dwindled till they had to combine as an area school, where kids rattle around among closed-up classrooms. Homes in side streets grew shabby or derelict; lawns and hedges and footpaths became rank and ragged. No-frills, no-bullshit Pātea is a place to sober the soul.
Airana Ngarewa grew up there (has the Significant Writer From Hard-Struggle Background trope reached cliché status by now?), and his rather terrific first novel The Bone Tree is set within sight of Taranaki Maunga, where invasions and exiles still darken memory, farms are battlegrounds with the environment, and time, weather, land all lift into myth.
Plot details – in detail, for a reason. Kauri and Black are pre-teen brothers (it seems), whose parents fit into that class labelled by one of our beloved political leaders as “bottom-feeders”. Except they don’t even feed any more. In a Gothic opening, Mum has already died agonisingly after a lazy medical misdiagnosis, and Dad follows soonish after, stiff and soiled in the living room. The two kids bury him under the eponymous tree. Their mother? Dad carried her body into the gorse that fills nearby paddocks; they didn’t dare ask what happened then.
The boys are already outside The System. They haven’t attended school for yonks; Dad sent CYPS away with a flea in their ear and a fist in their face; their dilapidated old house sits on a fringe of town, with gas already cut off and electricity soon to follow. So it’s a survival story, almost a survivalist one, as Kauri sets out to look after himself and younger Black, while staying invisible to any authorities, and fearing all the while that he’s doomed to end up “that same violent piece of shit” as his Jake the Muss father.
He starts multiple trips into the unnamed, garish city nearby, seeking identity, food, help, explanations of some sort. He looks almost Pākehā, and this both directs and warps his quest. In a pub of broken men, ”a scourge, a Taniwha within a Taniwha”, he meets ruined, resourceful Tea, who becomes a flawed seer and temporary saviour to the two boys. There’s also a gentle old shop-owner, who will take a fairly heavily-underlined leading role towards the end.
That story is only halfway through at this stage. So why all these details about it? Because it’s a narrative seething with incident. (”A shit-load happens.” Thank you, Kauri.). And Airana Ngarewa handles that load with impressive if occasionally precarious control. What’s remarkable is his fusion of the bleakly hyper-real and the emblematic. Events, places, people become parts of a sometimes lyrical, sometimes ferocious pageant, where everything blazes with lurid light.
I’ll also mention here that it’s the most bilingual NZ novel I’ve ever read, studded with te reo that even a shamefully ignorant monoculturalist like this reviewer can comprehend – and commend.
The plot storms on. Kauri has a major meeting and a semi-epiphany in a church. A paternity revelation follows. Nine-year-old Black, an authentically feral and gutsy, fragile and yearning small kid – ”real warriors don’t rest” – and one of the novel’s stars, falls sick and sinks towards death. I don’t believe it’s a spoiler if I tell you that someone else joltingly dies instead. Kauri makes more journeys into the city, meeting more deformed, sometimes deranged drunks and derelicts. A car splutters to the rescue. Halfway to it, anyway. Another revelation directs events towards some degree of reconciliation and resolution.
You may hear echoes of Once Were Warriors and/or The Bone People. But Ngarewa’s novel is less concussive than the former; less hallucinatory than the latter. He has his own voice, resoundingly so for a new, young writer.
Reservations? Every government or civic agency from CYPS through church to university gets a bad press, which sometimes diminishes them to caricatures. And you need to accept, even while you marvel at, some of the writing. ”He who knew the striving would not come without missteps, mistakes and misdeeds.” Or “The Sun took his seat atop the sky.” (I’d really love him to get rid of the several “atops” that I fell over.) You could tut-tut over these as florid and inflated. You could also see them as crucial to the imagery that colours the story.
In lots of other places, he gets the wording spot on: ”offices with glass windows stacked like crates of beer” And, on Mt Taranaki versus Tongariro, ” He hit on another maunga’s missus and got the bash.” Isn’t that second one just brilliant? If Ngarewa’s reach sometimes exceeds his grasp, that’s no bad thing in a debut work. Though I do hope he and his editors have the chance for a really long chat about the difference between ”eh” and ”aye”.
All the way through The Bone Tree, I kept exclaiming “Wow!” Actually, I kept exclaiming “Shit!”, which I attribute to the bad influence of young Kauri, whom you will also want to clasp to your bosom – though he’d probably knee you in the groin. It’s whole-hearted, passionate, not perfect, very, very memorable. And I’m delighted to report that The Pātea Māori Club gets a mention on p95.
The Bone Tree (Moa, $37.99) by Airana Ngarewa is available in bookstores nationwide. ReadingRoom is devoting all week to coverage of the author and his book. Monday: a portrait by author Emma Hislop. Yesterday: the author on kura reo at his marae.