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The Seasonwife by Saige England

The Seasonwife takes the reader into the world of New Zealand in 1832, where the harmonious life within an isolated South Island bay is disrupted by assault and violence to the natural world and threats to those who live there. The narrative focuses on two women, Bridie Murphy and Manaia O Piripiri, both taken and brutally used by Robbie Fitch, the captain of the ship which sails into this bay and whose crew wreak such havoc.

The novel reveals an untold truth of our history, the horror of trade by Pakeha in body parts, indigenous New Zealanders killed and mutilated. In one harrowing scene, a young Māori is hunted down. Once boiled and treated, his marvellously tattooed head will provide an amusing ornament in the home of the wealthy owner.

While the narrative is strong and compelling, as with the most compelling novels, The Seasonwife is layered and nuanced. Robbie Finch, is not only a character but provides a metaphor for the ignorance and brutality of colonization, while Quentin Cuthbert illustrates the ineffectuality of supposedly well-meaning missionaries and the damage they impose. Similarly, the tenuous bond which forms between Bridie and Manaia implies the possibilities of the richness when cultures form respectful friendships which both may learn from. While the novel unflinchingly portrays the violence inflicted on the land, the creatures which inhabit it and on Manaia and Bridie, there is also the replenishment and healing which can be found in the natural world and in the willingness to slip past borders and find friendship.

The language is vivid and haunting, ringing with musicality as English, Irish and Te Reo intermingle and harmonise. It is also wonderfully lyrical as a multitude of words are juggled; Ruffin, chuckle-headed, flaybottomist, ninnyhammer, fartleberry. There are rich descriptions of the natural world while, in contrast, cruelty and violence are unflinchingly portrayed.

The Seasonwife confronts the brutality of colonialism as it reveals the inhumaneness of past practices. It also asks the reader to listen, to discover, to korero as it guides towards other ways of thinking and being, asking that we consider the gifts which may pass between and amongst cultures, the power of the feminine and the wonders which may come out of kindness, healing, intuition, gentleness and respect.

Reviewer: Paddy Richardson

Bateman Books

When Irish immigrant Bridie Murphy passes an elegant young Māori man on the shores of Sydney she is captivated by his moko and greenstone earring, and fervently hopes they will meet again. Little does she realise that when they do meet again, both will have been unrecognisably transformed by their terrifying encounters with whaling ship captain, Robbie Fitch. Fitch is insatiable in his thirst for power. He craves the trappings of wealth and lets nothing stand in his way as he scours for prey, wherever it is found, and be that whale, or seal, or New Zealand native.

From the time her mother’s death in Sydney leaves her and her younger brother Tom orphaned and abducted from their Sydney home and under the control - yet certainly not the protection - of the savage Captain Fitch, Saige England’s breathtaking tale is as difficult to put down as it is to read and absorb, and yes to accept, in all of its truth.

England’s background as an award-winning human rights journalist covering Ngāi Tahu’s submission to the Waitangi Tribunal gave her uncomfortable insights into the plight of South Island Māori from the time their peaceful existence was first upended by seasonal visits from sealers and whalers. She has written this work of fiction in the hope that ordinary New Zealanders will understand the shocking harm done to Māori by the trade in body parts from the early 1830s when this novel is set.

“Eminent people ran this trade, and the real story hasn’t been told,” England says. She hopes her book will help us to understand our uncomfortable past. “Only by doing so can we move forward differently.”

After a horrific passage during which she witnesses Fitch’s corruption of her young brother Tom to his vulgar and heartless ways, Bridie then becomes a seasonwife and working slave when they make shore in a tranquil South Island Cove. While Fitch dreams of building an elegant town in the cove, he also plans to kill all of the residents and to preserve their heads for sale. First, he orders a native wife - intact and with a moko. Instead, he is given Manaia, a high-born young woman who is sent to spy. Such is Fitch’s brutality that she is cast out after their first horrific encounter, but not before she wounds him grievously. Ashamed of her failure to assimilate, and unable to return to her iwi, Manaia sets up house above the bay where she witnesses the uncouth behaviour of the new settlers as they slaughter prey by day, and drink recklessly by night. Soon the tranquil bay is awash with the blood of whales and the stench of slaughtered seals, and one after another, sacred tapu are broken. Eventually, the group splinters off as good faces off against evil and a fatal alliance is wrought between aggrieved Pākehā and local Māori, all tactically aligned against Fitch and his piratical men.

As historical novels go, I cannot more highly recommend this one, which has the brilliance of The Luminaries, but in an easier-to-understand and graphically realistic take on the Victorian novel. If this doesn’t win an award, I’ll print out this review and eat it with a knife and fork.

Reviewer: Peta Stavelli

Bateman Books


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