Great Kiwi Classic nomination: Cousins, by Patricia Grace

Available by order

On a miserable, cold, wet Sunday I sat down cv_cousinswith this book and became oblivious to the weather. This story captured me and transported me. The wonder of books and storytelling is that they allow us to not only see the world from another perspective, but also to feel the emotions of the characters as if you are walking in their shoes. Books take you to places that movies can’t reach because when watching a movie you are always a spectator, always on the outside looking in. A book allows you inside, looking out.

Patricia Grace’s books resonate with the pain of her people. Cousins tells the story of three female cousins who grow up in the period immediately after World War II when there was mass migration of Maori from rural areas into cities and towns and a huge loss of their culture and identity. Mata, Makareka and Missy have very different lives and upbringings but all three are shaped by being part of a culture of conquered peoples who have to fight to retain their own language, land and beliefs in their own homeland.

Missy grows up in a strong Maori family and community, but her life is blighted by poverty which affects her schooling. Part of the poverty is caused by her grandmother punishing her mother for marrying a man not deemed suitable. Her mother’s rejection of tradition and her grandmother’s refusal to change make for a harsh life for Missy and her siblings. Despite the poverty Missy has her language, her culture and strong family love and support but she is not equipped to live outside this small community.

Mata’s story is the saddest. Born to a European father she is left in a children’s home after her mother dies when she is only 5 years old. She is brought up with no knowledge of her people or culture or language and with a strong feeling of inferiority and shame for not being white. Mata fits in nowhere.

Makareta is Mata’s opposite. She is educated, cherished and nurtured by her grandmother and grows up with a strong understanding of her culture and is fluent in both Maori and English. She can straddle both worlds and becomes very influential in the burgeoning renaissance of Maori identity that takes place in the last decades of the twentieth century. But ironically Makareta is only able to succeed because she rejects an arranged marriage that her grandmother tries to ambush her into.

I became engrossed in the moving and compelling lives of these three main characters, as well as the minor family members whose lives intersect and connect with theirs. Patricia Grace is a wonderful writer and her prose is effortless and fluid.

Reviewed and nominated by Debbie Evans

Cousins
by Patricia Grace
Published by Penguin Books NZ
ISBN 9780140168082

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