Book Review: Fale Aitu | Spirit House, by Tusiata Avia

Launched over the weekend at the Auckland Writers Festival, this book is available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_fale_aitu_spirit_houseFale Aitu | Spirit House is a dreamworld that not only portrays strong and assured voices, but also explores the whispers of quieter ghosts. With Tusiata Avia’s brilliant language, this dreamworld becomes a landscape that is both quietly eerie and beautiful.

The collection is split into three parts: ‘Fale’, ‘Fale Mafui’e’, and ‘Aitu’. ‘Fale’, meaning house in Samoan, explores the stories that fill the rooms of family homes. Poem This is a photo of my house, describes a household of ghosts and memories, some painful, whilst moving from room to room. The brilliance of the poem lies in the way Avia drip-feeds the tiniest details with each description, hinting at perhaps a tragedy, a deep and dark feeling of loss. Avia warns, ‘The carpet is dark grey and hurts your knees, it doesn’t show any blood… Watch out for the girl in the corner, she is always here.’ It is a place that is rife with emotions and memories that cannot quite be suppressed or forgotten.

What follows is ‘Fale Mafui’e’, a short segment on the Christchurch earthquake. Maifui’e: 2 February 2011 is a title and date that resonates with significance even before the poem has begun. It is an erratic poem that portrays the panicked yet surreal moment of disaster; at first, the poet’s view is filled with “black sea creatures” and the next she is “underwater” in a strange dream that she describes as eternal.

Finally, ‘Aitu’ – spirits, in Samoan, further focuses on the characters and people that flit in and out of life. Poem Today we are in a Hospital Ward, becomes an interesting piece in this context. The process of giving birth feels unsettling paired with the earlier descriptions of ghosts and memories; even the newly born will someday become just recollections. The final poem, Fale Aitu, returns to the concept of spirits that consistently appears throughout the collection. The imagery of these spirits “grazing the glass” doors is a chilling description in such an intangible landscape. Even though there is an attempt to run quickly from the house and escape these ghosts, these spirits are always waiting: “some blowing smoke; some with hooded eyes, pacing”.

Included after Avia’s notes and acknowledgements, however, is another poem. Titled Poetry Manifesto, Avia states how, for her, writing poetry is “a supernatural force” that doesn’t necessarily need the supplementary explanations of academic writing. She talks about spirits and how their voices and words feed into her poetry. In a declaration that made me smile, she simply ends the piece with “I can write poetry, but don’t ask me to talk about it”.

Tusiata Avia’s new collection Fale Aitu | Spirit House is utterly alluring. The supernatural quality of her imagery perfectly brings the concept of ghosts to the fore of her collection. Avia is an expert at her craft and finds layers and layers of memory in old homes, broken buildings, echoed words. Although these aitu are eerie shadows in the background at first, it becomes apparent that these spirits are not here to harm, they drift and “move over us like water”. Memories may flit through the background but they are memories for a reason: they come from what is now the past.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Fale Aitu | Spirit House
by Tusiata Avia
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776560646