Saturday, 24 November 2012

Wulf, by Hamish Clayton

This a good book. A really good book. It’s one of those books I’m sure some readers won‘t enjoy, but surely even then people will have to recognise the skill and ambition with which this book is written. Hamish Clayton recently won the NZ Best First Book Award for it. That’s right. This fabulous book is his debut novel.

Ostensibly Wulf is a piece of historical fiction; it tells the story of a group of white traders aboard the Elizabeth in 1830s New Zealand, and the story of Te Rauparaha, the legendary Maori rangatira (chief). Their stories came together when Te Rauparaha paid the Elizabeth’s captain, John Stewart, to transport himself and a group of his warriors to Banks Peninsula, where they slaughtered an estimated 1200 people.

The story is told from the point of view of a sailor who (apologies if I’m wrong) remains unnamed throughout the novel. Te Rauparaha’s history is told to him by Cowell, another historical figure, who travelled with the Elizabeth from Sydney as its translator. Our narrator is captivated by New Zealand, and Clayton gives an excellent sense of New Zealand as seen by this British man’s eyes for the first time. The Wulf of the title mostly refers to Te Rauparaha: a foreign animal used by foreign men as a nickname for this native man.

Telling Te Rauparaha’s story by remove by white men could seem a cop out - a modern author afraid to put himself into a pre-colonial Maori mind. But, actually, this is Clayton’s most ambitious theme in his novel; how can these two white men be a reliable source for Te Rauparaha’s story? Where does fact and the man himself end, where does myth and legend begin? How can these foreigners interpret his actions without an understanding of the culture it came from? Are the scenes of cannibalism fact, or are they an exaggeration - the acts of savages as believed by the white man? How accurate is their account of history when every sailor has a different name for what we now know as Kapiti Island (Kopitee, Cobarty)? This is not so much history as told by the victors, but as told by the passers-by .
Their sunsets were part of our story, just as the arrival of our ships had already become a part of theirs. We were, us and them, part of the same story, different verses woven into the same song.
This is also a tale of when two disparate cultures came together, when modern New Zealand was born. It is a story of the irrevocability of contact; once ships and muskets arrived New Zealand could never be the same. Just as Maori civilisation was changed, so to were the whalers and traders, and eventually the settlers. After all it is not just Maori who have a traditional oral culture.
Had we ever stepped upon those unmarked burial grounds concealing the shafts of ancient war, where fossils of old Angles’ battle lay, and became poetry, slowly petrifying towards a state of lore?
Wulf is also based on an ancient Anglo-Saxon poem, first recorded in the eleventh century, Wulf and Eadwacer. It is a short poem, and appears in two different translations at both the beginning and end of the novel. It is a particularly ambitious poem to base a novel on as no-one appears to be sure what the poem is about. It is generally thought to be a lover’s lament, sung by a woman, but no-one is sure if the Wulf and Eadwacer she sings of are the same person or not, so it could be a love triangle. Alternatively it has been read as a mother’s lament for a child. There are clear features of the poem that are recognisable in Wulf. Certainly the ‘whelp’ at the end of the poem features in Clayton’s novel in a memorable, historically accurate, detail.

Clayton’s novel is complex, I could spend pages dissecting what makes this book so clever, yet it works beautifully as nothing more than a great story. It is hard for me to be sure, but I think that this novel would also be a great read if you knew nothing of New Zealand, its culture and history. It is rare to read a book that lives up to its hype. I’m excited to read what he publishes next.

If you are interested Radio NZ have featured it as their book reading - available online here.

Friday, 9 November 2012

The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey

Eowyn Ivey has burst onto the bestseller lists with her debut book The Snow Child, based on a Russian fairytale. Ivey’s version is set in early twentieth century Alaska, where Jack and Mabel have settled in an attempt to escape their grief for the children they never had. During a bleak winter they build a little girl out of snow. The next morning footprints lead away from the spot where the snow child stood, and a girl is glimpsed in the forest.

Ivey’s depiction of homesteaders in Alaska is engaging, and it comes as no surprise to learn that she is Alaskan herself. Her personal knowledge of how to live off this wild land is put to good use. The land itself is also bought to life; the long bleak winters of frozen rivers and deep blankets of snow, followed by the mud and green of spring, are all beautifully described without leaving the reader feeling as thought they are wading through page after page of nature.

Jack and Mabel are wonderful characters. As they are new to this landscape we can be introduced to Alaska through their inexperienced eyes. Their relationship is beautifully portrayed, and for me that was one of the highlights of this novel. Ivey captures the care and tenderness each feels for the other, and the misunderstandings too. They are both torn apart and bound together by their shared grief. The harsh Alaskan landscape, and the entrance of Faina (the snow child) into their lives, forces them to adapt; their resilience is moving. Mabel’s journey in particular - from a comfortable middle class background, depressed and marooned in the wilderness, to, finally, a strong frontier woman, is especially well portrayed.

As a foil we are also introduced to their neighbours, Esther and George Benson, and their sons. They are salt of the earth homesteaders, and provide Jack and Mabel with much needed support early in the book. They also bring a dose of reality to the novel. When the story could feel quite claustrophobic - a couple alone in the wilderness, apart from an ethereal child - the Bensons are representative of the wider community. While Jack and Mabel are outsiders the Bensons belong in Alaska. Ivey uses them as the insider voice, providing the know-how of how to survive in this extraordinary landscape.

The question asked by this novel is - how real is the snow child Faina? Is it just coincidence that she appeared after Jack and Mabel built the snow girl, or did they really conjure her to life? Ivey plays with this idea throughout the novel, never really making her answer clear. I’m not sure she does this entirely successfully though, but I will get to that in a minute. What she does do well is find a way to tie in the original fairytale - Snegurochka - to the story. Mabel is familiar with the fairytale from her childhood. It becomes an obsession of hers, especially as in all the variants of the fairytale the snow child never stays. This is all done with a lightness of touch; Mabel’s worrying comes across as something akin to normal motherly concern.

Faina herself is very thinly drawn. The book is more about the effect she has others, than her as a person. Ivey does well to make her seem part of the Alaskan landscape: beautiful but with wilderness at her core. I didn’t quite understand why though, if Ivey wanted to preserve the mystery of Faina, she hinted at an explanation for Faina’s presence in the wild, one that was essentially quite grim. This happens reasonably early in the novel, and I initially thought that Ivey had explained her background, but then the more ethereal/fairytale origins continued to be important. I’m not sure it was the right decision. I struggled to ‘buy’ the mystery, partly because Ivey’s explanation of how she came to be alone was so believable and heartbreaking.

It isn’t a perfect novel, but it is an impressive debut. There was a lot to like in Ivey’s characterisation and her depiction of Alaska. I took it on holiday with me, and it was a great holiday read. It isn’t a groundbreaking novel, but I enjoyed it enough that I’d check out books Ivey publishes in the future.