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Kāwai: For Such A Time As This by Monty Soutar

A young Māori man, compelled to learn the stories of his ancestors, returns to his family marae on the East Coast of the North Island to speak to his elderly grand-uncle, the keeper of stories. What follows is an enthralling account of the young man's tipuna, the legendary warrior Kaitanga, after whom his marae's whare puni has been named.

Readers first encounter Kaitanga’s father Tāwae as he awakens on a battlefield in 1734 AD, buried under a pile of corpses. The young chief Tāwae returns to a broken tribe, and it is his job to rebuild the strength and the fighting spirit of his people.

We then follow first-born son Kaitanga as he trains hard to become one of the most incredible warriors in Māori history carrying the weight of his people's need for retribution to assuage their grief.

This is an epic novel, telling the story of pre-colonial Aotearoa like it has never been told before. Author Dr Monty Soutar (Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Awa, Ngāi Tai ki Tāmaki, Ngāti Kahungunu) traces his own ancestral lines to reveal a picture of Aotearoa in the mid-18th Century, through to the first encounters between Māori and Europeans. It describes a cultures with an immense knowledge of science, medicine and religion, proud tribes that live harmoniously within the natural environment, and a highly capable and adaptable people that put family and legacy first. However, it is also a culture illuminated by a brutal undercurrent of inter-generational vengeance, witchcraft and cannibalism.

Soutar is a respected historian and this is his first foray into fiction. It is a truely remarkable novel that sweeps readers up and captivates them from the very first page.

I love the use of te reo Māori throughout, followed by the English translation. Soutar begins each chapter with a whakatauki, which alludes to the content within the pages. Whakapapa and a glossary are also included.

Soutar offers readers a window into the past that we've not had before - exploring a part of our history that so often is obscured or sidelined. He doesn't vilify readers but neither does he shy away from challenging us.

For Such A Time As This is the first in the Kāwai series. Soutar's planned historical novels will narrate the experiences of nine successive generations of one Māori family, taking readers from the 1700s through until 2018. He lays bare the impact of colonisation on New Zealand, balanced with an honest appraisal of the country in pre-colonial times.

This is a powerful piece of historical fiction that should be read by every New Zealander.

Reviewed by Rebekah Lyell

Bateman Books, RRP $39.99


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