Inside the Black Horse by Ray Berard
Opening Sentence: “Pio Morgan backed his car into the alley between two shops, right across the road from the pub.”
The Black Horse is a rural pub replete with the expected array of locals, booze, drugs and gambling. In the challenging world of rural hospitality, The Black Horse seems to be fairly successful since the owner, Toni, took over (even with a recently died husband and a couple of children in the mix). On this particular evening, Pio Morgan - gun in hand - sets off a chain of events that Berard sets up beautifully. More times than I would care to admit he had me thinking one eventuality only to blindside me with a twist. I thought I could spot such literary styles a mile away but I was proved dreadfully wrong. Well played Mr Berard. Well played.
I have to be honest. There is always a sense of trepidation when I read that an internationally-born writer is tackling a novel about New Zealand, particularly rural New Zealand, and particularly Māori culture. It’s the Ngāti Porou in me. I often find the writing cringe-worthy, lacking in authenticity and just wrong. Sometimes it can feel like Māori - in literature at least - are all drug dealers and no-hopers with a penchant for violence. So when I read that the author - Ray Berard - was born and raised in Canada, those familiar feelings bubbled up again.
Berard has clearly spent a lot of time thinking about how to present his perspective in a way that is believable and based upon his own experiences. A lot of the narrative drive is inspired by his own experiences as a betting supervisor for the TAB. What initially began as a suggestion from the local constabulary to maintain a diary as a record for any events that occur that may require further investigation turned into an elaborately crafted novel that explores the criminal underbelly of Aotearoa.
Yes, it has all the elements of drug dealing and taking, violent acts and a generally high level of coarse and explicit language meaning that I think the novel is best pitched at a more mature audience. But what it also has is a heart that lifts it above the usual trite about Māori and gang life in New Zealand.
What I most enjoyed in The Inside of the Black Horse was the way Berard captured the camaraderie in both language and action. So often dialogue feels stilted or incomplete with crime writing. Berard writes with a natural ability to emulate everything from the witty repartee of old friends to love interests, to the constructs of formal conversations with law enforcement.
The descriptions and events are challenging at times and confronting at others. Berard is able to construct and maintain a host of characters that are equally intriguing and terrifying.
Overall, I really enjoyed this rollercoaster. I can safely add that Ray Berard - from Canada - has redeemed my faith in overseas writers and their ability to capture a little slice of Aotearoa with authenticity and compassion.
The standout message for me comes from the novel’s gang leader Kingi Morgan when he says “This, folks, is the other Aotearoa. The one they don’t put in the travel brochures”.
Reviewer: Chris Reed
Publisher: Bateman Books, $34.99