by Dinah Holman
In this work of historical fiction, the author establishes a reframed narrative from the 47-year period after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. The scene is set in 1887: New Zealand is in a long depression. As such, the social and economic pathos of this situation is lent perfectly to the backdrop of a complex murder tale populated by a raft of characters both real and fictional.
The genre is not new in New Zealand literature, and it could be said that recent forays – in both literature and film – into marrying historical fact with romance, crime and adventure genres have proven very popular.
This 264-page book has a strong Anglo-Franco-Italian-Māori connection; Fréderique (Riki) Bonnell is an opera singer who is searching for her Māori heritage while on a singing tour of New Zealand. On the journey to Auckland, she is a witness to an attempted murder, and the first two chapters describe the harrowing journey from Sydney on the Rotomahana, where she is thrown overboard with key character and murder target, Kaituhi, only to find herself washed up north of Auckland. Kaituhi (it seems) also serves as a backstory filler. There is lengthy discourse about recent historical events and figures.
The second plot sequence involves an Italian character, Franceso Bartellin, who is connected to Riki as a singer on the same tour, and becomes Riki's love interest. He, too, is drawn into the corrupt underbelly of so-called legitimate business and politics in Auckland, and together the pair question the motives and machinations of some of the most prominent names in New Zealand politics of the era.
The pace of the book is quick at times; and there is also an element of the cinematic, in that the reader can vividly imagine this story transposed to film. The long discourse between characters would also frame this as fodder for the visual medium.
In terms of audience, this is a book for a fan of the genre, which may sound obvious, but I imagine many historians would come to read this story with a fact-checking mind: there is no need. The author clarifies her intent in the preface – that a major diversion from fact has occurred, and that the book weaves elements of fiction and embellished characterisation over the timeframe of 1887.
The detailed research illustrates the interests of the author who, I think, is keen to promote local, particularly New Zealand European, history as an accessible genre. After all, the literary market the world over is flooded with tomes involving European history set in Europe. Holman asks us to look closer to home for the same kind of tales of intrigue and corruption. To that end, she succeeds.
Author: Dinah Holman
Publisher: Ravensbourne Books
Available: Bookshops, Amazon