Tag Archives: New Zealand

*** Barkskins by Annie Proulx

 

Barkskins is the ambitious saga of two families, descended from two French emigrants to what was now New France, aka Canada, in the 17th century. The story follows the families into the present and travels to China, New Zealand, and Europe as the descendants seem to be very eager to explore new lands (and poor enough that sometimes they ave no other choices. At 700 pages, this is not for the faint of heart but the massive historical research behind the book and the variety of characters kept my interest. There is too much preaching about clearcutting to my taste when the story itself could tell the tale, and although I always love strong women the presence of so many in centuries where opportunities for women were limited is a little suspect — but still a massive achievement.

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** Tommo and Hawk by Bryce Courtenay


The second installment of the trilogy after Potato Factory centers around the next generation, Tommo and Hawk, twins who don’t look anything like each other and who will endure (brace yourself): kidnapping and rape, a brutal season on a whaling ship with a vicious captain, campaigning with the Maoris in their fight against the British crown (really!), followed by, respectively, addiction to opium and a brief career as a boxing champion. It’s a little hard to believe that any one individual would be able to have so many adventures, let alone twins!

Violence abounds in this book again. In addition to the rapes already mentioned there are many more rapes, whippings, amputations, death by fire and drowning and much more. Not for the faint of heart. And as with the first book, this one can only be entered as a myth-making history of a country rather than a family — and, with it, all kinds of unpleasantness for the Maoris, Aborigenes, and Chinese immigrants, who are always painted as inferior, despite the existence of a few highly sympathetic supporting characters.

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** The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton


The Luminaries is a gorgeously rich, cunningly architected story set in Gold-Rush New Zealand, in a West Coast town full of mud and hopeful miners, and a prostitute with flouncy dresses and an opium habit. The story is told in achingly slow pace, just like a 19th Century novel, and the detailed subtitles of each chapter continue the period feeling. As the story unfolds in multiple, often embedded flashbacks, each character’s life story comes to light.

Gorgeous, right?

It’s also 830 pages long, and can I recommend you invest your time in 830 pages? No, unless you just love the slow, deliberate pace of 19th Century novels and, perhaps, you have a very long flight ahead of you — ideally San Francisco to Auckland, transferring to a South Island flight. (You will land expecting to see long dresses and miners’ outfits, guaranteed!) To give you an idea of the pace, the first day of the story, January 27th, 1866, takes a full 400 pages to narrate. Of course that’s with many, many flashbacks, but also many repeats and summaries, making sure the reader is not lost, very 19th Century in spirit — but this reader got quite a bit impatient, and bored, waiting for all the repeats to unfold. And when all is said, the story is intriguingly tangled but it’s essentially the story of a young woman betrayed into prostitution. Haven’t we had our fill, and more, of those? The book is like a beautiful antique reproduction, beautiful but why not buy a Noguchi instead?

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Come on Shore and we will Kill and Eat you All by Christina Thompson

Come on Shore and we will Kill and Eat you All has to have the best title of the year – nah, make it the decade, perhaps the best title of any book I’ve ever read. It turns out to be a quote from the explorer Cook, who had several experiences with the ferocity of the Maoris.

The book itself is hard to classify. It starts out as the relatively straightforward story of how the author, the daughter of an upper-class mother and an academic father, meets, marries, and makes a life with her Maori husband, but the family story is interspersed with many tales of the discovery and subsequent conquest of New Zeland by the Europeans — a story that sadly resembles other conquests in other parts the world. The book is not a sorry tale, however. It tells lovingly of the beauty of New Zealand, which I hope would come through convincingly to readers who have not been there. It sure made me want to go back.

It also talks about marrying someone very different from oneself. Seven, her husband, not only looks different (and sticks out in the affluent Boston suburb where they eventually move in with her parents) but is also a blue-collar worker when she is a highly-educated academic and approaches life in the most relaxed manner, something she has not liked to do since her younger days. (After all she met him in a bar in  on the Bay of Islands, having decided not to get on her bus back to the airport…)  Their life together is, as expected, a full of compromises, mostly gracious ones.

The weakest part of the book is the last chapter or two, in which for unknown reasons she decides she must tell the story of her mother’s family, for balance. I would gladly have stayed in the Southern hemisphere instead.

A delightful, different, deep book. Highly recommended, and not just because of the title.

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