Book review: Where the Rekohu Bone Sings

By David Hill

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New Zealand writer Tina Makereti. Photo / Lisa Gardiner
New Zealand writer Tina Makereti. Photo / Lisa Gardiner

Tina Makereti's first novel has the same blend of mundane and mythic, homely and heraldic that distinguished her excellent short story collection, Once Upon A Time In Aotearoa.

It follows the lives of two couples, the first joined by a friendship that swells into something much greater, the other by blood ties and history. They learn secrets and destinies that mean shifts of home or allegiance.

In the 1830s, a series of displacements led Ngati Tama and Ngati Mutunga to the Chatham Islands and the subsequent enslavement of indigenous Moriori. The novel begins half a century later, in the Marlborough Sounds, as Mere starts to understand that her affection for childhood friend Iraia has become a more potent emotion. Potent and fraught, since Iraia is descended from a Moriori slave. He's a reminder of an ugly past; a "shadow person".

Four generations after this come the startlingly contrasting twins Bigsy and Lula. Their mother is Maori; their father Pakeha. Or so they think: a more complex lineage gradually reveals itself to them.

The quartet variously escape or move on - to careers; the Great OE and a carved figure that redirects a mind; 1880s Wellington with its teeming wharves, noisome back streets, uneasy reactions to dark skin; to the Chathams, the Land of Mist, and further realisations.

All four have separations to face, identities to comprehend, prejudice and incomprehension to endure. Deliberately or grudgingly, they undertake quests that return them geographically and emotionally to starting points.

It's a narrative with a good deal of information to impart, and does so via reports, dialogues, debates. Inevitably, there's the occasional didactic chunk, but Makereti never forgets that this is a novel. The plot kicks along; characters are faceted and credible.

Mere, in particular, is an absorbing rendering of bolshie girl become doughty woman and then matriarch. There's patient but unbreakably proud Iraia, dazzling Bigsy, watchful, vulnerable Lula.

There's another presence as well: a disembodied ancestral voice, watching over the characters, speaking from "the place one step away from life". Through this presence, dispossession and debasement are evoked. It's a daring device. It falters sometimes, but Makereti's technical skill and emotional urgency fuse it impressively into the narrative.

Again, like her short stories, Where The Rekohu Bone Sings sits the domestic down beside the supernatural. A taniwha seems to lurk in a bread oven; illness stems from a curse as well as a fever. Sun, rain, birdsong are participants as well as setting.

An unshrinking book, which faces the issues of Moriori rights and status, the culpability and cultural obligations of Maori as tangata whenua and British as colonists. A generous book also. The author respects her characters but doesn't ignore their sulks and selfishness. People can exploit, enslave, abandon but they can also commit enriching acts of kindness. And did I mention that it has happy - or at least reconciled and fulfilled - endings plural? Great.

Where the Rekohu Bone Sings by Tina Makereti (Vintage, $37.99).

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- NZ Herald

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