In the literary equivalent of the old bacchanalian adage, "the second half of the bottle of wine is better than the first", so, too, does Witi Ihimaera's ambitious novel only improve well over halfway through. However, it's a case of too little, too late and the overall impression is of a non-novelistic agenda confusing the work, obstructing the authentic purpose and draining most of the life from the pages of what could have been a reasonably enthralling saga.
The over-arching problem is one of too much explanation and a perception of great expectations - in the author's mind, at least, for this work, post the plagiarism dramas that plagued his last novel, The Trowenna Sea.
He has stated that he sees The Parihaka Woman as a redemption novel of sorts, a foot-noted fiction with a raft of explanation to show source and inspiration. This unfortunately overshadows the narrative and the writing itself and is too self-referential to be the mischievous subtext the writer believes it to be.
The Odyssean saga has the bones of greatness. Using the inspiration of Parihaka and its world-renowned philosophy of peaceful resistance, Ihimaera weaves the tale of two of its inhabitants: the appealingly stout-hearted Erenora and her handsome warrior husband Horitana. When the latter is carted off to prison - first at Mt Cook in Wellington, and finally in a cave on "Peketua Island" (a barely-disguised Ruapuke Island in Foveaux Strait) - Erenora and her sisters head off to locate their respective spouses.
Their journey is the fillip the book needed - the pace picks up, the settings and side-characters change with a frequency that keeps the narrative moving - but it comes 100 pages too late, after a historical contextualising that the interested reader could exhume themselves from the myriad texts Ihimaera quotes.
Even the narrative strategy where Horitana's nemesis, the one-dimensional evil Pakeha genius Piharo, puts Horitana in a tangata mokomokai, a silver mask, comes from Dumas' The Man in the Iron Mask. Ihimaera references great art - the novel originated as a libretto that relocated Beethoven's Fidelio - but, if he draws inspiration from these works himself, he seems incapable - or unwilling - to pass them on to the reader via his own work in any great measure.
There are, of course, from someone of his irrefutable talent, moments of tender beauty, but his natural lyricism is stymied by using an ageing history teacher as narrator, whose deliberate ordinariness replaces Ihimaera's usually more creative voice.
Some of the musings on how history gets retold are diverting enough, but none are especially new, the author - and others - having long hewn material from the rock of oral versus written historical tradition/who owns history/what is truth, and so forth. One can only hope that Ihimaera had to get this work - and his reaction to his recent infamy - out of his system and that, duly freed up, he can return to the fine writing and imaginative narratives for which he first made his mark.
Michael Larsen is an Auckland writer.