Book Review: Kehua

By Kerri Jackson

Kehua by Fay Weldon
Corvus, $29.99

Photo / Supplied
Photo / Supplied

Fay Weldon's latest novel is a story about stories and about writing. It's also a story about families and home, and about never being able to escape the sins of the fathers. That's quite a lot of things for the one novel, but Weldon weaves it all together with a sly cleverness which keeps the ground shifting under the reader.

The England-based writer, who grew up in New Zealand, has populated her story with Maori kehua, spirits of the departed who circle the living members of their whanau, birdlike, trying to gather them back to the ancestral home. She has also filled it with murders, multiple acts of possible incest at varying degrees of separation, adultery, suicides, accidental deaths and near-deaths.

When Beverley, aged 4 and living in Canterbury, discovers the body of her mother - just killed, it is presumed by her father - the kehua urge her to "run run run". And she does, first to get help, then at intervals through her life as events twist and turn and go sour. Pregnant - possibly by her adoptive father (who is also, possibly, her real father) - she runs at last to England.

There the family tree keeps branching, with children bearing children through a shifting, subversive and slightly seedy collection of relationships.

Interjecting her voice into all of this at increasingly frequent intervals is "your writer", toiling in an apparently haunted basement to tell us Beverley's family story.

It's these interjections that elevate the novel from slightly lurid melodrama to something more clever.

The writer's presence blurs the lines between reality and fiction, so that everything occurs in some limbo of fictional reality.

Facts of characters' lives presented early in the story shift and change as "the writer", who may or may not be Weldon, finds her loyalties and expectations of the story changing. It is all very confusing and nothing is ever what it seems, but that rather appears to be Weldon's point.

It feels like she's turned her novel inside out to show you all the fragile workings within, as well as the bits that have been patched up and re-worked, and that elevates it into something much more interesting than the oh-so-many other stories about tortured, dysfunctional families at the point of some great unravelling.

Unique and interesting, it's a good choice to take to the bach for the holidays.

- Herald on Sunday

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