Book Review: Ancestry

By John McCrystal

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'Ancestry' by Albert Wendt. Photo / Supplied
'Ancestry' by Albert Wendt. Photo / Supplied

Ancestry by Albert Wendt
(Huia $35)

If you'd written a set of stories that reflected the daily realities of Samoan New Zealanders in the 1980s, it would have featured lots of manual labour - meatworks, motor vehicle assembly, factory work - dawn raids, racist jokes.

Albert Wendt's latest collection of short stories reflects a very different reality, although the trials and tribulations of the generation that forged a beachhead in hostile territory in Niu Sila back then still casts a shadow.

The palagi couple who move into a Ponsonby villa next to which Jim and Mata Mein have lived for 40 years (Neighbours) worried for a time that buying next door to Samoans might compromise the value of their property; but they become friends. The expectations of a generation that formed the productive underclass of New Zealand society weigh heavily on their offspring, whose generation seems to have the world at its feet.

But the Samoan characters in Ancestry face different problems, middle-class, first-world problems.

Most of them live in Ponsonby and Grey Lynn, and have undergone the same gentrification as the suburb.

As Wendt depicts it, the university has supplanted the church as the centre of the community; a people who have taken the first steps along the road to material advancement will not settle for putting their entitlements on the never-never as the church has traditionally asked. Academics, students and lawyers are disproportionately represented: those who have made it, those who are determined to make it in their turn.

Ancestry comprises 14 more-or-less linked stories. Taken individually, they're relatively conventional, slice-of-life narrations, and mostly quite unsatisfactory at that.

The endings are occasionally so desultory (Friendship, for example) that you flick back and forward to make sure you haven't missed a page somewhere. But as you read on, you begin to sense that it's the whole rather than the parts that matter. Some of the stories feature the same characters; some feature characters who are so similar that you wonder whether they are the same characters in disguise.

The aim, then, seems to be to make the themes of central importance, and the characters and even the stories themselves are merely servants to that higher end.

This is fine on an intellectual level, as are the jokes (Wendt himself and his previous novels are cited in a number of stories). But where the collection fails to satisfy is on the emotional plane. The characters are sketchily drawn and Wendt has cloth ears when it comes to dialogue, particularly the dialogue of the young and hip. One or two stories do engage the reader's empathy: by far the best story in this regard is Fast, about the friendship of a young Samoan literature student with an older palagi classmate.

Graeme, a celebrated architect, dies and Jonas and his family go to perform the traditional tribute to his widow, who, as a former Volunteer Service Abroad volunteer in Samoa, has a good grasp of fa'a Samoa and an adoptive 'aiga (family).

For Jonas, it's a voyage of rediscovery: while his family are distant from their roots in fa'a Samoa, he is awed and grateful when his own father proves more than equal to the ceremonial occasion.

This is the message rubbed through the fabric of the stories in Ancestry: the hope that however far from Samoa and fa'a Samoa the people may stray, they will at some point in their lives feel that visceral pull, that sense that they are the living and breathing incarnation of their ancestors.

The old ways may be lost, but the ancient ways are always being reinvented.

John McCrystal is a Wellington writer.

- NZ Herald

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