I just finished reading Tina Makereti’s novel Where The Rēkohu Bone Sings (2014, Vintage). In a short twitter conversation with the author and another reader, I mentioned an intense passage late in the book featuring some graphic and unpleasant content. (I said I wasn’t sure I could recommend the book to my mother on account of this sequence – it was a flippant comment, but sincere nonetheless.) When I tried to go into further thoughts on this sequence I gave up, the Twitter format defeating me. They both suggested taking it to blog – so here we are.
Context, then. The novel follows two stories in parallel. First, in the 1880s, the forbidden love arising between Māori girl Mere and her family’s Moriori slave, Iraia. Second, in a contemporary setting, twins Lula and Bigs investigate the secrets of their own ancestry that leads them back to Mere and Iraia, and then to Rēkohu (Chatham Island). Woven through the narrative is another voice, the spirit of an ancestor even further back who accompanies Iraia, and then Lula, on their respective journeys.
(Some plot spoilers, inevitably, follow – but despite the name I don’t think knowing the things I’m about to discuss will spoil the book for you at all.)
Late in the book, Lula and Bigs return to Rēkohu and for the spirit this is an awakening of unpleasant memories, recounted in two powerful sequences. First, we relive with him his death at the hands of invading Māori, an intense build-up to a battle that ends almost immediately in his death. The second section is the one that gave me pause. Here, we stay with the spirit as he finds he does not move on into the afterlife, but instead lingers, attached to his body. And the narrative follows what happens to that body, in careful detail, as it is cooked and eaten by the conquerers. The back cover describes the book as “quietly powerful and compelling”, and it mostly is, but this sequence is a clear violation of that tone. It is gruesome and confronting. I think it’s also important and valuable and probably crucial. Many reasons. Let me try and catch some of them.
The book is, in part, about the historical relationship (and conflict) between Māori and Moriori. This is, to put it lightly, poorly understood by New Zealand at large – this well-researched novel is certainly the most information I’ve ever encountered on the subject. But one thing that everyone knows – well, “knows” – is that Māori were the aggressors towards the Moriori, and killed and ate them. The reason everyone knows this is because many socially conservative voices try to invoke this historic injustice as a way of dodging the current inequality in NZ. If Māori were wicked to Moriori, then they can’t complain about Europeans turning up and being mean to them, and besides it’s not as if the Europeans ate the Māori, they aren’t barbarians, the Māori should be thankful for all the things we gave them… These sentiments are regularly expressed in the letters to the editor of every newspaper in the nation, not to mention in more than a few opinion columns and other venues. (Don’t even think about what gets said in comment sections. It isn’t good.)
In a sense this sequence was necessary – if you write a novel about the history between Māori and Moriori, I’d guess you can’t avoid this narrative. Not that I’m suggesting Makereti is obliged to address the social conservatives out there in NZ – far from it, no author owes anything to anyone – just that a novel on this subject would feel incomplete if it avoided addressing the best-known historical factoid about this relationship. Makereti in fact deftly structures the novel to exclude those grumpy old men entirely by locating the issues raised by this history in the relationship between twins Lula and Bigs, who share lineage from both sides of the historical conflict and each come to identify more with one side than the other.
So Makereti had to talk about the details of what happened somewhere. But the sequence she gives us is clearly far in excess of simply acknowledging this history. The intense dramatisation makes this a climactic moment of the entire novel, and a tonal disruption that colours everything around it. This serves her literary purpose well, because in historical terms that violence colours subsequent history right up to the present – the tone structure of the novel echoes the history that is its subject.
But the genius in this sequence, and why I think it’s so important, isn’t just that it presents this history so vividly and unforgettably. It’s that it contextualises these acts of, to my eyes, barbarism, with an anthropological eye filled with empathy. As the spirit becomes attuned to his new afterlife, his relationship to his body changes, and the perspective of the invaders slowly approaches knowability in his eyes. The crucial moment comes as he witnesses part of his body fed to an infant, and through this moment, leaves his body and moves perspective to hers. The description, unflinching in the detail of chewing and swallowing and digestion, is subsumed under the child’s innocence, and the spirit becomes able through her to perceive the other oppressors as people driven by their own fears and needs and loves. The sequence becomes, somehow, beautiful.
When I say, then, that this sequence of grotesque violence hangs over the rest of the novel, what I mean is the strangely comforting moment where the spirit allows himself to feed the child. It promises some redemption, someday, for conflicts that remain unresolved.
So, yeah. It’s structurally and thematically huge, and it works beautifully on many levels. That’s what I got out of this sequence, as best I can express it today anyway! The rest of the book of course is not full of violence. I should point out it’s a beautiful book and I love the characters and the storytelling and the whole thing. And in writing this I’ve talked myself around – the violence here shouldn’t dissuade anyone, my mum included, from reading this. It’s worth it.
No wonder I couldn’t fit all that into 140 characters…
(Edited to add: “Makereti” in this post feels wrong, but “Tina” would be even more wrong, and “Ms. Makereti” would be even even more more wrong. I dunno.)