It wasn’t all that long ago that a year could go by without a single novel by a Māori writer; Māori literature felt as though it was in crisis. Now it seems as though a month doesn’t pass without a book – poetry, fiction or non-fiction – by a Māori writer arriving hot off the press. Some books are quality writing, and of course this is marvellous. Recent examples include Emma Hislop’s clever and beautifully written story collection Ruin; Whiti Hereaka’s superb, award-winning Kurangaituku and Rebecca K Reilly’s delightful Greta and Valdin.
The Bone Tree is the debut novel from Airana Ngarewa, a teacher and freelance writer from Pātea. He’s published some admired stories, essays and features, so there’s been some buzz about The Bone Tree, including comparisons with The Bone People and Auē. Set in the back blocks of Taranaki and in an unnamed city that is probably New Plymouth, the novel is the story of half-brothers Kauri/Cody and Black: they are left orphaned in a rumpty old shack of a house when first their mother, then their father dies. Fearful of being separated and fostered out by CYPS, the kids bury their father and don’t alert the authorities – shades of Iain McEwen’s extraordinary first novel The Cement Garden. Mum has already been disposed of by Dad in an ‘unmarked grave’.
In terms of words on the page Ngarewa most certainly can write. Kauri/Cody’s voice is particularly vivid, and as the point-of-view character does much of the heavy lifting. The novel’s early chapters that focus on the rural environment where the whānau live, as well as the characters’ back story, are strong largely because there’s an ordinariness – and I mean that in a good way – to the story. (‘The wind blew, whining as it found gaps in the windowsills, the fading scent of ash still burning in the back of my throat – the neighbours must have burned boxthorn in the night-time.’) Solid writing, solid storytelling: nothing wrong with that. When the writing is doing this, you don’t need big, exciting, over-the-top things to happen. The human condition and human experience, if explored with emotional intelligence, will always be enough, as any voracious reader will tell you.
But the plotting here isn’t always subtle or complex. Action lagging a bit? Throw in an over-the-top car journey at breakneck speed that ends in a crash, or maybe a murder/suicide. Through much of the novel Black is unconscious and dying from septicaemia, ‘lost in a sort of purgatory’, while Kauri/Cody disappears into the city where quite by coincidence every person he meets is related to him and his brother. Tea/Tears is a broken alcoholic who Kauri/Cody happens upon when he goes to the pub: he’s also the boys’ uncle. How fortuitous. Tea takes his nephew to a church and they meet two men – the preacher and one of his flock, both of whom turn out to be directly connected to the boys.
Big things happen. Four people die, and yet none of those deaths is explored in any meaningful way by any of the surviving characters. Tea murders his own father – ‘Fella did his dad like I’d always wanted to do mine’, Kauri/Cody observes – and then kills himself ‘with that beloved gun of his’. Kauri/Cody talks about ‘grief’ and says he is ‘choking back’ emotion; his maternal grandmother, who has now lost both her children, is briefly ‘frozen with grief’ but gives a long speech on how ‘they’d been set up to struggle from the get-go’ and how she has to come ‘to terms with just how much I could’ve done’. The overwrought grief doesn’t ring true. This is what I mean by a certain lack of emotional intelligence. A novelist must walk in other people’s shoes and understand the complexity of their pain and their joy – though there’s very little joy in The Bone Tree. In order for the darkness to work there must be light, as Becky Manawatu demonstrates in Auē. Some light appears in the final pages of the novel but it feels like too little, too late for this reader.
The novel’s rural setting is evoked well, though goodness knows why the maunga Taranaki doesn’t feature more prominently. (During my five years of boarding school in New Plymouth, I learned that people in Taranaki, Māori and Pākehā alike, are obsessed, quite rightly, with their mountain.) The city in the novel –where ‘the steel and concrete buildings reached for the sky’ – is oddly surreal and cries out to be anchored in reality, including the logistics of Kauri/Cody (and his father) walking into the city: it takes about an hour on foot, we’re told, but that hardly places them ‘in the wop-wops’ of the Taranaki back blocks.
Younger brother Black, who contracts septicaemia early on, spends the majority of the novel unconscious and dying, wrapped in a duvet and dumped in the corner of a bedroom. The delirium of the dying is rich material and denying him a point of view feels like a wasted opportunity for the novel. I can’t help but think of Hereaka’s Kurangituku travelling through the various stages of the afterlife, which resembles a multi-platform immersive on-line game, as she’s dying and reviving. Or George Saunders’ fantastic novel Lincoln in the Bardo which takes place entirely in a Beckettian limbo. (And with all due respect to Māori medicine, Black needs to be in ICU hooked up to IV antibiotics and a host of machines with a team of doctors trying to save him and his leg.)
The Bone Tree offers grim, unremitting misery: Māori poverty, violence, neglect, alcohol abuse … you get the picture. While I do understand that Māori will stop writing about this kind of stuff when it’s no longer a reality, it doesn’t have to be the mainstay of our literature. This novel may well find a far more forgiving audience than me and my exacting expectations. But there’s quite a difference between writing a short story or an essay and a full-blown novel. My advice to Ngarewa and indeed any new or aspiring writer is to read quality and read critically; to read, read, and read some more.