Fiction Addiction

Book news and reviews with Bronwyn Sell and Christine Sheehy

Fiction Addiction: Rangatira review

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Rangatira, by Paula Morris. 
Photo / Supplied
Rangatira, by Paula Morris. Photo / Supplied

Going by the feedback we've received in the last month, there's been a great deal of interest in Paula Morris's new novel Rangatira. Many Fiction Addiction followers have reported that they were fascinated by the concept of the novel, in which Morris fictionalises a journey made by her tipuna, Paratene Te Manu, to London in 1863.
If you've read it I'd be interested to hear your thoughts - because I found it ultimately unsatisfying.

Morris does some things superbly. The characterisation and voice of Paratene is so convincing it's easy to forget you're reading a modern reconstruction, rather than Paratene's own 19th century journal. The novel is told in his point of view as he recollects his fateful trip with regret, while sitting for a portrait in 1886 by the famed painter Gottfried Lindauer (who he refers to as "the Bohemian").

That portrait graces the cover of the book. It's as strikingly lifelike as the words Morris has placed in Paratene's mouth, but Morris suggests there were flaws in the portrait.

Here's how Paratene describes it in the book:
"My moko looks very bright and very green, my whiskers peeping through its grooves. It's not quite right, the way the Bohemian has painted it ... He can't read Maori faces any more than he can read Maori books."

In fact, Morris believes Lindauer and Paratene never met, so Lindauer did what Morris has done - created an intimate portrait of a man she never met. Lindauer probably created his portrait solely from a photograph. Morris creates hers based on years of research, and accounts Paratene gave of his long life before he died in 1896.

The novel is interesting as a tale of a clash of cultures. Paratene is the oldest of 14 rangatira who travel to Victorian England in 1863 in a tour organised by an entrepreneur by the name of William Jenkins.

The trip is pitched to Paratene as "a journey to the other side of the world to see England and some of its great factories, palaces, churches, and schools ... We would see the riches and wonders of this place, and learn their language. People would assemble in churches and schools, eager to hear us talk about our customs and old ways."

The expedition begins to deteriorate even before they dock at Gravesend. The Maori travellers are crammed into steerage, given no blankets and fed worm-riddled biscuits while the three pakeha, including Jenkins, reside in cabins and - Paratene surmises - eat roast beef and fresh eggs.

There are highs in London - including a meeting with Queen Victoria - but the relationship between Jenkins and his unwitting troupe of entertainers descends into distrust, disloyalty and humiliation.

Though Morris's portrait of Victorian-era Auckland and London is engrossing and she's nailed Paratene's voice, the constant foreshadowing robs the book of any surprises. Early on Paratene warns that one of the party will die, and it becomes so glaringly obvious who this will be that it has no impact when it eventually happens.

There are so many characters that it's hard to keep up with them all, let alone get to know them to the point that we care about their fates. Paratene is a detached narrator, an observer of the unfolding drama rather than a participant in it, who conscientiously relates the detail of every significant conversation and meeting but stops short of becoming emotionally involved.

The effect is that, towards the end, the narrative becomes a plodding catalogue of the trip, as if it's being recorded for posterity (as is Paratene's character's intention), rather than crafted into a novel (as is Morris's job).

Morris says she made some significant departures from fact for the sake of creating a novel, such as imagining the meeting with Lindauer. Perhaps she should have employed more artistic licence - created more of a sense of suspense, narrowed down the list of characters so they could become more fully developed, reined in Paratene's urge to record every detail, created a more intimate tale instead of this wide sweep.

Or perhaps this fascinating story would have worked better as a non-fiction book. Rangatira is somewhere in between, and I think it loses its impact as a result.
If you've read Rangatira feel free to post your thoughts below.

I'm running a bit late this month but I'll be introducing my December read on Friday, the new Sherlock Holmes adventure The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz. (Christine has already introduced her feature read, Animal People by Australian author Charlotte Wood.

There's still time to enter our competition to win copies of both The House of Silk and Animal People. You'll need to tell us your pick for the best book of 2011, and why. Entries close this Friday.

- HERALD ONLINE

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