“Who’s he’s mountain?” asks an old Maori elder in Patricia Grace’s new novel. He’s asking these questions about Chappy, a mysterious stowaway, apparently from Japan, who has landed in 1930s New Zealand and been taken in by the Maori seaman who found him. “Who’s he’s river?” old Uncle Jimmy asks. “Who’s he’s ancestors? Who’s he’s name? Who he is?” It is these questions that drive this novel, as, eighty years later, Chappy’s grandson, lost and troubled Daniel, travels back to New Zealand from Europe in search of the mysterious grandfather he never knew and, indirectly, in search of his own roots.
Chappy is skilfully and effortlessly woven together by Grace. Though Daniel’s voice occasionally pops up, the majority of the novel is an interlacing of narratives from Aki, the Maori seaman who took Chappy in, and Daniel’s great uncle, and Oriwia, Daniels’ no-nonsense, practical, sometimes bolshy grandmother, and Chappy’s wife. Alongside this narrative interweaving stands a cultural interweaving too. Different languages—Maori and English, predominantly—slip and slide alongside each other, and, though Chappy is undoubtedly a New Zealand novel, like its characters, it wanders the Pacific, with significant sections set in Hawaii and Japan. As Oriwia tells Daniel, “You can be anywhere in the world, but you have a tūrangawaewae that cannot be denied you.”
I enjoyed the expatriate or wandering flavour inherent in this novel; overseas travel has always been a part of New Zealand experience, from the twenty-first-century OE to the twelfth-century voyages from Hawaiki, and yet previous great Kiwi novels haven’t , in my opinion, often included that journeying spirit. Grace however manages to express this international aspect without sacrificing this feeling of Aotearoa as tūrangawaewae—its characters’, and our, place to stand.
It’s significant then that both Daniel and his grandfather Chappy enter the novel rootless, without a place to truly call home. Chappy stows away on a ship and, though he comes to consider Aotearoa as home, this home eventually turns on him, as might unfortunately be expected in 1940s New Zealand when dealing with a Japanese immigrant. It was fascinating and sobering to read the sections describing Pearl Harbour and the hardships German and Japanese-born Kiwis endured during that time. Chappy also spends time living in Japan and in Hawaii, torn from his wife back home, and still living a life that seems somehow incomplete or impermanent; several times he’s compared to a ghost. In fact, Chappy remains a mystery—though we learn more about him, he remains oblique and unreachable. Daniel, however, is luckier. His quest to discover his grandfather leads him in turn to understand his own roots.
“Who’s he’s mountain?” Uncle Jimmy asked of Chappy, and though Chappy’s answer to that remains unknown, it’s clear that Daniel’s search has brought him closer to understanding who his own mountain, river and ancestors are. This immaculately written New Zealand novel thus tells a universal story—the search to find your self—and is utterly absorbing and beautiful. Very highly recommended.
Reviewed by Feby Idrus
by Patricia Grace
Penguin Random House New Zealand