Book Review: Hokitika Town

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Hokitika Town by Charlotte Randall
Penguin $30

Book cover of Hokitika Town. Photo / Supplied
Book cover of Hokitika Town. Photo / Supplied

Charlotte Randall is an award-winning New Zealand author whose novels reflect someone utterly in love with the potential of language. She is a novelist who takes risks, who lets her imagination audaciously soar and, like Lloyd Jones and Elizabeth Knox, surprises you with each new book.

Hokitika Town, her seventh novel, is set in the gold rush of 1865 and is clearly the work of an author writing at the height of her powers.

A young boy is the magnetic centre of the novel. Halfie has ended up in Hokitika scrambling for coins and survival by washing dishes and doing errands. He is the epitome of goodness and views the adult world of drunkenness, double-crossing and lust through his innocent childhood filters.

The story is told in Halfie's voice. His patchy English gets richer and more creative as he absorbs the various voices of the characters he meets. Grammar is all askew, words are invented (vomit is "upthrowings"), he is not afraid to curse and there are pockets of superlative poetry.

Randall's audacious imagination (with the help of research, of course) attempts to see the world of gold diggers and bar girls through the eyes of an outsider. Halfie not only grapples with a new language but with new customs and puzzling sights. The sailing ship, for example, is all dressed up. Halfie thinks he could help heal Gertie far better than the incompetent doctor.

Three adults make a difference to Halfie: Violet, a "pantaloon girl", Ludovic, a drunken ex-digger, and Kaspar, a German stranger. Here lies the ticking heartbeat of the novel. The mutually beneficial relationship that Halfie forges with each is restorative. Yes, this is a world of deceit and vile behaviours, but Randall dares to place faith in trust and the ability of humans to do good.

The back-stories of the four key characters are fuzzy, but the questions that emerge are potent. Why did Halfie end up in Hokitika? Why is he so committed to preserving Violet's unborn baby? Why is the bond between Ludovic and Halfie so strong? Who is the true Ludovic?

This is a story of tenderness, empathy and resilience. Not all the questions are answered in tiny detail, but by the end of the book you have a far greater understanding of each character, of the world they inhabit and of their surprising origins.

What made this book stand out so much for me, beyond the terrific depiction of character, is Randall's understated approach to issues and emotions. This is a novel of belonging and not belonging. It navigates the vulnerable notion of home for the gold diggers and the foreigners. What can an uprooted person call home? How can they furnish that home?

Equally important, and with similar understatement, Randall explores the various ways a battered past shapes the vulnerable present.

Halfie asks Ludovic why he doesn't sleep in satin sheets and Ludovic explains there are other satin things in life: "There's satin mornings, laddie, and satin seas. There's satin skies and satin solitude." But, Ludovic adds, there is only so much satin to go around and you have to figure out how much to ask for.

Randall has gifted us a character that will endure, language that pirouettes like no other and a story that reminds us that our literature does not have to live on dark alone. Hokitika Town is an absolute treat.

Paula Green is an Auckland poet and children's author.

- NZ Herald

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