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Checkerboard Hill by Jade Kake


When a family member dies in Australia, Ria flies from New Zealand and returns to the family and home in Australia she suddenly left decades before as a teenager. Waiting for her return are her husband and son in New Zealand. Neither family has met the other, and Ria has always kept her Māori, Australian, New Zealand identities and lives separate.But the family tensions, unfinished arguments, connections to places and meeting of former friends, lead Ria to revisit her memories and reflect on the social and cultural tensions and racism she experienced, and the decisions she made.

This is a stunning debut novel from author Jade Kake (Ngāpuhi, Te Whakatōhea and Te Arawa). It starts slow and disjointed, to the point where I put the book down and finished another. But I'm glad Checkerboard Hill stayed on my to-read pile. Ria's story kept nagging at me, and I'm glad I picked it up again. About a quarter of the way through, Ria's story began to reveal itself, as did she, and from that point on I was hooked. I absolutely devoured it, swept up in Kake's vivid descriptions and lyrical words.  She has the power to transport readers, allowing us to feel the characters' emotion, delve into their thoughts and experience their lives. Kake is an architectural designer and these skills translate impeccably for her to describe spaces and environments in the story, placing the reader right into the setting. Ria is a complex, deep character, full of flaws and some of her decisions sit uncomfortably. But she is real. 

Her New Zealand whānau is learning te reo Māori and Kake doesn't shy away from the intergenerational struggles that can bring. Her son and husband speak te reo Māori throughout the book, and Kake leaves it untranslated, knowing it would be a disservice to the character to remove their language to make things easier for readers. This thread of colonisation runs through the story and I'm grateful that publishers like Huia are working towards making publishing a safer space to write stories the way they're meant to be told, language and all.

Checkerboard Hill is a raw and riveting read from a writer with a very bright future ahead.


Reviewer: Rebekah Lyell

Huia Publishers


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