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Waiata Aroha

Chappy by Patricia Grace (Penguin, $38)
Reviewed by Vaughan Rapatahana

Chappy-cover_WebWith this eminently readable novel Patricia Grace returns to the full-length fiction stage after a hiatus of ten years.

I enjoyed reading the book; it kept me interested and impelled to turn over the pages when my body had already informed me it was time to sleep. It propels itself forward rather like a mystery novel, which I guess it essentially is.

For who is Chappy? More appositely, why is Chappy? He aha te maunga, te awa, ngā tipuna, te ingoa tika o tēnei tane? Actually these patai [questions] are never resolved in this novel and the culmination sees Grandmother Oriwia and her mokopuna Daniel preparing to ship off to Japan to quest more information about this rather sketchy character – their Japanese husband/grandfather. Chappy Two, must be on its way, eh.

So I surmise that Grace has rather deliberately unfulfilled her main protagonist, this titular chap, Chappy Star, who has no official name or designated background, let alone concretized specifics as to how he actually gets around from Japan to San Francisco to Aotearoa to Hawaii – on more than one occasion: he remains an undernourished character in more ways than one throughout this text. Nor, for that matter, are the actual magic abilities of others to so travel to these same destinations in so streamlined a fashion, ever really accorded credibility – at least for my curious mind. Strategically so, perhaps, so as to colour him – and his hefty Polynesian whanaunga – in more as the series progresses. (To be continued…)

Because there are a few places where I did pause slightly to consider that these characters certainly move around a great deal, both in space and over a sizeable period of time, rather easily fiscally: like in most Hollywood movie plots, contingencies and complications are hiding somewhere else and one is supposed to go with the flow if the storyline is nourishing enough and the actors remember their lines. Grace has employed her poetic licence a bit here, eh. As for example regarding the amazing ease by which Oriwia translates Aki’s reo, without seemingly sleeping – for the umpteen months her mokopuna – the similarly underdeveloped Daniel, who is slowly becoming Māori – boards with her, apparently without remunerative employment due to his “financial independence”. As Oriwia rationalises at one stage as she constructs her own tale, “You should be allowed to do that when you’re the owner of the script.”

The trend of suspension of belief aside, the book is enjoyable, whānau-based, very much rustic and rural Māori in perspective, in ontology. All good. It has also been rather scrupulously researched so as to portray the colours and hues of Aotearoa-New Zealand through the mid-20th century, as well as Hawaii over the same timeframe. World War II is there, the Depression is there, the manifest racial discrimination of ngā Pākehā toward anybody non-white is always there or nearby: an intolerance still ongoing, by the way, but far more noticeable back then: the South Auckland episode where Oriwia and her sister Moana-Rose are refused entrance to the movie theatre’s downstairs seats is hugely reminiscent of the 1960s refusal by Papakura and Pukekohe hotels to allow Māori into their lounge bars.

And I do not have much more to say. The novel is a romance: aroha/aloha is the keystone to the action. Aroha for and between individuals, which is tantamount to aroha for all communally in Māori ethos. And in Hawaiian ethos. Aroha surmounts all obstacles ultimately, continues untrammelled over time (ten years elapse after Chappy rescinds home status, before he is re-located in Japan – during all this time, Oriwia never relents in her affection for him…) Aroha is the lodestone for whānau to never give up on Moonface or Noddy, as they quell and quash the bamboo groves after discovering one missing family member there and hope to demystify the other’s vanishing. Aroha too, is the medicine that softens Oriwia’s initially often formal, stern and quite cold reactions to her daughter’s love for a Hawaiian boy; to the Hawaiian boy’s mother, Ela; to other acquaintances scattered here and there across the 252 pages. And it is the panacea for her ultimate reversal of mind and voyage to Hawaii to be with her Chappy, her one true love forever. Whakapiri ki tini me te mano, e kore te aroha mōu e mimiti.

And romance is the noun form of the prime impelling adjective behind and segueing through everything in this fictive essay – romantic. For Patricia Grace is a true romantic warrior, trying to wrest herself, her audience, her characters back to the past, seemingly halcyon days of small town and country living, both in Aotearoa for Māori and for their close relationship or hononga, to indigenous Hawaiian (after all, they share the same ancestors or tipuna, eh). There they would still be, were it not for the Pākehā and their land-grabbing ways, the machinations of their socio-economic monopoly plots whereby folk have to go to Old Kent Roads in cities to survive.

Chappy, is a wistful dream-sequence in many ways, a yearning for yore, a fading daguerreotype in long dresses and ribboned bonnets, long since out of fashion, where everyone still eats Grandma’s delicious home-cooking, fresh from the wood-stove, while the boil-up always bubbles on top. He kai tonu, nē rā. A place also where respect is always paid to one’s elders, ki ngā atua, ki ngā kōrero mo ngā patupaiarehe me ngā kēhua hoki. When I read this book, I was back in Te Araroa at Tutua marae, munching on a kai and listening to waiata. It is a nostalgic photograph album. As Aki reflects, “For me, it was a beautiful life we led, with enough of everything – that is until it all changed.”

But back to Chappy. Talk about inscrutable. He is here somewhat unsketchable – which is, of course, the propellant for the reader and all the many interwoven and multi-ethnic personages woven in fine harakeke throughout the kete that is constructed by him, that is Chappy the book. He is the ‘alien’ Other as Holy Grail talisman touching all-as-one in a gossamer network web of kinship and duty and tikanga. “My husband was always a mystery to me,” says Oriwia. Indeed.

Kia ora mo tēnei pukapuka Patricia. Ka nui te pai tau mahi. Ko he karere rahi mo ngā tāngata katoa kei konei.

He aha te karere? [What is the message?]

“All time becomes one…Everything’s a search for light.”