Falling into Rarohenga by Steph Matuku
Exploring the world of Māori myths is becoming increasingly popular in YA fiction in Aotearoa. It is both a nod to the success of international examples such as Percy Jackson and the sharing of Greek mythology with a generation, and with a truly unique perspective of Māori culture.
Engaging our young people with these stories keeps them alive, teaches them about the ways of the ancestors, and creates a new generation of readers. There have been a few such examples over the years from a range of writers.
Here, Steph Matuku has constructed a half adventure, half mythical hybrid which brings action and excitement to the reader.
Falling into Rarohenga is based around twins, one boy - Kae and one girl - Tui who share that strong almost telekinetic ability that some twins seem to have. One day returning home from school they cannot find their mother. Through some extraordinary measures, their father has stolen her from their family home and taken her to the underworld - Rarohenga - to spend the rest of eternity together. Their father seems to be making up for some of the mistakes he has made on earth in the after life.
Told in a back and forth narration between the two siblings, Kae and Tui explain the world around them, the people and mythical creatures that they meet, and the hunt for their mother who remains in the clasp of their demon father.
The interweaving of Māori mythology with a strong English storyline speaks to the connection between Māori and Pākehā that exists in Aotearoa New Zealand. Matuku is able to bring forth what is effective both through the style and language. She captures the beauty of the te reo and the lyricism of the Māori korero but with the linguistic strength of a seasoned writer in English. Structurally, she also manages to keep the narrative running at full pace with short and snappy chapters that seamlessly move back and forth between the two protagonists.
It’s great to see some of the stories of old come to light here with the inclusion of beings such as taniwha and tūrehu which bring a realism and intrigue to the story. These stories challenge some of the preconceptions of these creatures, like the interactions between human and taniwha that are, perhaps, unknown to a lot of young New Zealanders. The descriptions of these also give more strength of the imagery allowing the readers to be fully engrossed in this magical world.
Matuku’s writing is always so thoughtful and evocative. And this new novel from her is no different. Her ability to capture the teenage voice and create an authentic landscape in describing Rarohenga is so effective.
Overall, this is a classic YA adventure stories with rescue, excitement, humour and mythology woven in. Steph Matuku creates worlds that are real and vivid and brings to life some of these old creatures and stories from the old world. A note must also go to Stace James Eyles for the wonderful cover illustrations.
Reviewer: Chris Reed