The Thrill Of Falling by Witi Ihimaera
The Thrill Of Falling was probably a natural choice for the title of Witi Ihimaera's latest work of fiction, as he is not unacquainted with that thrill. His recent career has seen him take his share of pratfalls, moments where the reach of his artistic ambition seemed to exceed his grasp.
But coming a-cropper is all part of risk-taking, and it is to Ihimaera's credit that this latest collection of long stories is still full of experimentation and literary derring-do, where a lesser author might have bolted for his comfort zone.
One More Night is a reinvention in short fiction of a play that was itself a reinvention for stage of Ihimaera's landmark 1976 story collection, The New Net Goes Fishing. Orbis Terrarium takes a paragraph from an unfinished Katherine Mansfield story as its opening. The Purity Of Ice is a foray into science fiction. And practically all of the stories feature elements of Ihimaera's recent experimentation with genre-busting, with allusions from literature, film, opera, dance and drama liberally sprinkled throughout.
It's a routine, then, that's studded with high-risk manoeuvres, with moments where the audience, watching it all unfold, can hardly bear to look.
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Inevitably, there's a clunky moment or two. The Purity Of Ice in particular is a rather hackneyed pastiche of literary jokes and scientific solecisms.
But that's about it. The rest of the stories range from the good to the very good, with one story approaching the sublime.
Maggie Dawn is a conventional but well executed story of a young girl trapped in an awful and all-too-believable situation, obliged to care for her younger siblings while her mum carouses with her gang-loser boyfriend. We'll Always Have Paris is a nicely turned comic piece: Will is summoned to drive his aunt, who has been ejected from her East Coast rest home, to Auckland. It seems Aunt Lulu lived in a fantasy world even before she succumbed to dementia: now she's having trouble working out exactly which classic movie she's starring in.
One More Night is better yet. It offers a slice of the life of Whero, a Maori singer on the verge of making it in London. But it's a race to see whether she will crack it or crack up first. Her story is interwoven with the even more poignant story of her dad; we know she has demons, but the twist in the tale is when we find out who they are.
But the show-stopper is the final, title story, The Thrill Of Falling. This is Ihimaera's contribution to what may well go down in history as Tupaiamania - the sudden, intense interest among scholars and artists in the historical figure of Tupaia, the Tahitian priest James Cook brought to New Zealand on his first voyage. Ihimaera's story has a line of Maori descendants stretching all the way down to Little Tu, the weakling last in the chain.
When his uncle disappoints Koro, the guardian of the Tupaia legacy (earning him the nickname "Tu-Bad"), Koro takes Little Tu under his wing. But his exhortation to his mokopuna to find the voice of his ancestor within himself works a strange magic on Little Tu, and leads him in unexpected directions. The climax and conceit at the heart of The Thrill Of Falling - a gymnastic routine using the historical figure of Tupaia as a touchstone for the meanderings of whakapapa, the individual's quest for his own identity, the tortuous, accidental unfurling of history - is quite brilliant, and the story a beautiful, lambent note on which to finish.
John McCrystal is a Wellington reviewer.