To say this is a great read is an understatement. Master storyteller Witi Ihimaera takes us deep into the heart of rural 1950’s New Zealand and invites us into the lives of the Mahana whanau; their homes, their community, their history. With references to events and people of the time, authentic characters, and rich scene-setting, reading it feels like a trip down memory lane – you feel the heat of the sun, you taste the dust of the metal road, you are familiar with the place.
The Mahana whanau is led by the legendary Tamihana, known as Bulibasha, a Gypsy word for ‘King of Gypsies’ – a powerful and righteous man who dominates his large family. With the grace of God, he has earned the respect of his people through his sporting prowess and shearing business. Firm in his beliefs, he leads his sons, daughters and mokopuna with a strong hand, demanding strict adherence to his views on life and the correct way of doing things. Added to this epic family tale is a decades old feud with another powerful whanau, played out in no-holds barred sporting competitions, kapa haka contests and ultimately, the first ever Golden Shears competition.
The narrator of this powerful tale is Simeon, the 15-year-old son of Tamihana’s seventh son. Aware of his Grandfather’s low opinion of him, he is the only one in the family who dares to question his Grandfather’s authority. Thanks to oft-repeated stories featuring Tamihana as the conquering hero “He was the reference point by which all history was judged,” the adults are in awe of their patriarch, however Simeon is not convinced. At a time when society was beginning to change, with teenagers pushing against traditional boundaries, Simeon and his Grandfather clash many times; Simeon’s coming of age challenges Bulibasha’s long held beliefs and control over the family.
Although just as loyal and hardworking as the rest of his whanau, Simeon wants more than joining one of the family shearing gangs. He does well at school which is another difference that riles his Grandfather: “Even coming second, I was being embarrassing. Becoming more Pakeha and less Maori somehow… Or as Grandfather would say, becoming whakahihi. Too big for my boots. Not staying in my place.”
The character of Simeon has a great way with words, filling his tale with Maori phrases and surprising cultural references that enhance the richness of his character: “There was, however, an art to shearing just as there was to most work, and Uncle Hone was a Botticelli of the board.”
First published in 1994, Bulibasha won the Montana Book of the Year Award in 1995. Its re-release coincides with the release of Mahana, a film adaptation directed by Lee Tamahori, starring Temuera Morrison as Bulibasha. Now that I have met them, I can’t wait to see the wonderful characters of this important Kiwi novel brought to life.
Reviewed by Vanessa Hatley-Owen
by Witi Ihimaera
Penguin Random House New Zealand