by Isa Pearl Ritchie
This is a wonderful book, with a cast of achingly familiar characters who show a range of human strengths and frailties, passions and spirit. Best of all, it lets us see how they relate to each other, helping or hindering and generally enriching or complicating each other’s lives.
In other words, it’s a novel in the classic sense, and a very successful one.
In essence, it is concerned with the ordinary or extraordinary trials, intimacies and difficulties that swirl around a particular group of whānau and friends.
Gayle, the matriarch, has rediscovered her Māori heritage. Valerie, her daughter, is a doctor, and she has four children. The eldest of these children is Elena, a passionate nutritionist who writes a food blog, and who is pregnant with her first child. Then there is Michael, a University student who spends much of his time surfing and skateboarding and learning Māoritanga from his grandmother, and who is particularly taken by the myths featuring Māui. Next is John, the rebel, chock full of bitterness, who thinks he hates everybody and everything and who walks out of school and out of his mother’s house. Lastly, there is eight year old Rosa, who offers a kind of Greek chorus commentary on events and is childishly charming and irritating, and naïvely honest and perceptive. On the fringes, making an occasional entry, is Caleb, Valerie’s rather selfish ex and father of her children. Malcolm, Elena’s ethicist partner who is struggling to live up to his own reasoned beliefs, and the wounded but courageous Evie, Michael’s sometime girlfriend, are also significant players.
There is plenty of touching humour even though the themes are often weighty. The various protagonists either choose to or must deal with such issues as mental illness, drug use, animal rights, food adulteration, infidelity, school bullying and, perhaps most significantly, the cultural and psychological effects of colonisation; but all this is achieved without preachiness (unless deliberate, as with Elena’s attempts to reconcile her obsession with natural foods and her taste for doughnuts, or Evie’s sincerely argued justifications for her veganism).
The focus is always on the people and their relationships rather than on the issues themselves. Yet they are issues that the author clearly intends us to think about, and in doing this she adds to the value of the book without diluting its entertainment value in any way. It is also unselfconsciously a thoroughly New Zealand book. The problems encountered are our problems, but we are left with a feeling of hope and of belief in the essentially compassionate nature of our society.
The dialogue and the descriptive passages are excellent, the prose lean and crisp. It is refreshing and rewarding to read a novel that does not rely on contrived shocks or cleverness but instead presents us with characters we feel we know, putting them in situations with which we are familiar. Indeed, this is a wonderful book.
Author: Isa Pearl Ritchie
Publisher: Te Ra Aroha Press