After a ten year absence from the New Zealand literary scene, Patricia Grace is back with Chappy, a narrative in a similar vein to Grace’s previous, multi-award winning works.
Young and presumably wealthy, Daniel, a European-born chap is sent to stay with his Maori relations in New Zealand by his mother, so as to figure out what he wants to do with his life. Whilst lodging and working with his granny, Oriwia, he becomes fascinated by family history and convinces her to tell him stories of the past – particularly those of his mysterious, Japanese-born grandfather and the books namesake, Chappy. With the added help of his great-uncle, Tiakiwhenua, known throughout the novel as Aki, a complex and startling narrative spanning nearly one hundred years unfolds.
Grace is well versed in nostalgia; all of her works deal with the strong ties that have always bound and continue to bind whanau together, although, unusually, Chappy is without the bitter aftertaste of, say, Potiki, perhaps Grace’s most lauded work to date. Chappy is a different kettle of fish in that it is not about Maori being exploited, abused or duped – there is very little underlying political thread or socio-economic questioning to trouble the reader – Chappy simply shows us the complexities of family dynamics, the sometimes serendipitous nature of events that help to shape the future.
Oriwia’s relationship with Chappy, who we find out to be a military deserter, is at the centre of the novel and is developed with a subtletly and charm sweet enough to be taken out of the pages of a fairytale. Caution and shyness dominate the beginning of Oriwia’s and Chappy’s romance, followed by the inevitable difficulties and strain due to the difference and lack of understanding of their respective cultures.
Chappy details the nature of time changing things, yet things retaining a certain familiarity; people maintaining the same traditions and holding the same beliefs, but also having to adapt and evolve. The parting words of this novel echo these sentiments: “All time becomes one.. everything’s a search for light.” A perfectly poetical ending to a perfectly nuanced and intriguing story.