Book Review: Wairaka Point – An African-New Zealand Journal, by Trevor Watkin

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_wairaka_pointThe first thing most people do when picking up a new book is to automatically go to the front flap of the dust cover to get an outline of the story, but in this case no information was on offer. The second thing I know I do, is to read the back flap of the dust cover to read the biography of the author, but again nothing was there, so I did what any good reader does – I just got on and read the book. And what a book!

The story starts in Pukerua Bay, in Wellington, New Zealand 1961 with Nick James going off with his gun (a present from his father on his fifteenth birthday) to shoot a few rabbits. It had been raining so the cliff face was muddy and loose. While walking along the coast, near Wairaka Point, he came across a massive slip which had pulled down boulders, soil, trees and sand. He decided to go around the debris and at that moment he saw a skeleton, with a military-type jacket made of leather now green with mould. He raced home to get his Father. His Father gets the local policeman involved who sends the body off to the mortuary for a post mortem. Nick learns that the coroner has determined that it was probably the remains of an old hunter from before the war who fell and cracked his head on a rock. Case closed, no more is thought of the incident.

In another part of the world, Stella Rees was home in Umtali, some hundred miles north of Melsetter where her grandparents Oom (Pieter) and Sissy Viljoen, tobacco and dairy farmers live. The Viljoens were descendants from one of the original Afrikaans families.

How Nick James and Stella Rees meet and their connection to each other evolves into one of the best stories I’ve read for a very long time. This is a story based around true events in world history – WWII, Afrikaans history all interwoven into a “can’t put it down book”. A love story, with adventure, criminal activity, and a mystery finally solved. Lots of footnotes with explanations of Kiwi slang, Māori words, Afrikaans and historical events make this a very enjoyable read.

Trevor Watkin was born in Cornwall, educated in Zimbabwe and graduated from Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, so a well- travelled man with an obvious interest in New Zealand and African history. He has worked in agriculture as a trader, company director and publisher, and lives in Melbourne.

A great read and I would certainly read anything else Trevor Watkin wrote.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

Wairaka Point: An African-New Zealand Journal
by Trevor Watkin
Published by Product Research Pty Ltd
ISBN 9780648214212

Book Review: Shifting Colours, by Fiona Sussman

Available in bookstores nationwide

I remember as a university student in the early 1980s, cv_shifting_coloursfresh out of a sheltered existence at my high school, being confronted almost head-on with The World as seen through the eyes of the university student newspaper. Apart from the usual gripes that students had towards the tertiary education policy of the day, the overwhelming memory I have of those weekly student newspapers is the ongoing coverage of the violence and injustice of life in South Africa. As a very naive 17-year-old, I literally felt my eyes and mind being saturated and filled up with far away happenings.

Reading this novel took me right back to how I felt when I read those student rags, with their vivid and emotional reporting, engaging peoples’ physical and emotional pain, the little control they have over the path their lives take, and how hope and human kindness can still be found in the most unexpected places. It is a fabulous story, carefully and sparingly written, not too emotionally awful, but enough to make one ache for the characters and how little they are able to change their condition.

Opening in 1959, in Johannesburg, six year old Miriam lives with her mother Celia who is the maid for an English couple, Ria and Michael. Life is tough for Celia, although Miriam, being a child much loved by her mother, knows no different. The continuing unrest in South Africa leads to Celia’s employers returning to England, and giving Celia a terrible choice − they wish to adopt Miriam and give her the life that she could never have in Johannesburg. It breaks Celia’s heart, and Miriam all-too-suddenly finds herself living in Norwich.

The book then alternates Celia and Miriam narrating their stories as the years pass. Both suffer in their respective environments. Celia has trouble finding and retaining work, she has three older children and has to provide for them as well, black unrest continues unabated and Celia finds herself caught in the crossfire. Meanwhile in Norwich, where black people in the 1960s are almost unheard of, Miriam also has a terrible time. Unable to adjust in any way to life in England or to her new ‘family’, she is a most unhappy girl. An accidental meeting with an Indian girl and her family is the one bright thing in her life, and also becomes her anchor in the years to come.

Eventually Miriam, as an adult in the mid-1980s, finally realising that she needs to attend to the unfinished business of her early life in South Africa, makes the journey back to find where she came from. This perhaps was the most interesting part of the whole book. For here we have a black woman, well educated, speaking with an English accent, with the same rights as all other people in the UK, suddenly finding herself a repressed person, a second class citizen, subject to random searching, violation, and with very few rights.

I met the author socially at a dinner. This book had just been accepted for publishing and all she would modestly say about it was that it was set in South Africa. Very evasive. I am quite blown away that this is what her book was all about, and that it has been written with such humanity, power and intensity. She is South African-born herself, and at university found herself drawn to the protest movement. Knowing that background now, it is hardly surprising she has written this book with injustice and identity as central themes.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

Shifting Colours
by Fiona Sussman
Published by Alison & Busby
ISBN 9780749016128