Jane Austen’s unlikely sister, Elizabeth Caffin

Patricia Grace,
Penguin, $24.95

We now have the good fortune in New Zealand that a number of fiction writers can be relied on to produce a good book time after time – Jane Frame, Owen Marshall, Maurice Gee, and certainly Patricia Grace, are comfortingly consistent and rewarding. To begin a new Grace novel is to know one is in good hands and to sense at once a professional confidence and assurance. She has been writing for a long time and much of this ease comes from an experienced mastery of her resources, a purely literary knowledge of what she does best; dialogue, narrative and especially a direct self-effacing style that draws little attention to itself but accumulates great power.

But her strength comes too from something she shares with a most unlikely sister, Jane Austen: the background of an ordered community linked by kinship and marriage, land and inheritance, manners and etiquette. Unlike Austen, Grace does not present this structure as unchallenged or unchanging, but it constitutes the deepest assumption behind her work, a mysterious and affirmative faith.

This new novel is ostensibly the life stories of three women, Mata, Makareta and Missy, different in personality and in fortune, an ambitious family saga covering half a century. Its title, however, Cousins, which at first appears blandly descriptive (an impression reinforced by the cover illustration), in fact suggests a more subtle and complex achievement. A cousin is someone in a mutual and equal kinship relation, an individual but also the member of a group; the word implies other relationships, between parents and children, between husbands and wives, between brothers and sisters.

The book slowly and cumulatively builds up this wider context, the whanau, moving to and fro between generations, points of time, places. Superficially constructed as separate stories, the novel is a single one. While each of the cousins stands in the foreground, one by one, making her own choices, she does so in relation to the wider family, the background figures present throughout and her sense of herself, her sense of her own individuality and value, emerges in that context. Only in the last short sections do the cousins speak in their own voices, assume the first person.

The novel begins bleakly with Mata, who is severed from the whanau completely, bereft of mother, husband, child, with only her ‘two feet to walk her’. Her hopelessness and homelessness are matched by her limited understanding: there is a gap between her understanding and ours into which pain rather than irony enters. Makareta’s experience is first mediated to us through her mother, Polly, member of another family, city‑dweller, who relinquishes the care and education of her daughter to the kuia, Keita and Kui Hinemata, to the group. Stranger is the unborn twin brother who tells Missy’s story, which remains within the whanau and derives its meaning from inside the tradition.

Each of these three long sections recalls the single visit made by the 10-year-old Mata to her mother’s family, that essential background and that point in the past where the cousins’ paths cross, told always with Grace’s unparalleled skill at the re-creation of childhood experience. One incident recurs in all three accounts, the dialogue interestingly holding it constant: Mata’s gift of a wonderful marble, ‘a four-colour ribboning world’, as a prize to her cousin Manny for being ‘the best drum rider of all’. This small act, so astonishing to the other children ‑ ‘she give Manny the marble’ ‑ is at once an assertion of the self and a submission to the wider group. It is reflected in the much larger and more dramatic steps taken at crucial points by Makareta, the chosen cousin who escapes the future planned for her by the old people, and by Missy, who assumes it; and finally by Mata herself in returning to her turangawaewae as the essential participant in a communal ceremony.

The narrative bends and weaves, repeating itself, overlapping, filling gaps: the book’s first moments, for example, are reached again nearly 200 pages later. While Grace is telling a story, a sequence of events, she is also resisting the idea of simple on‑going narrative by creating a simultaneity of events, locating the present, as in the traditional Maori view, always in the light of the past, a past shared by others. As the book moves on it also returns to the beginning, to childhood, to the land, to the marae, to the old people who live still in its final pages. For Mata, recovering her people is recovering the past, closing the gap of understanding.

This is a book about hopes, dreams and expectations – plans, in short, for the future. Mata wants ‘to make something her own’, Missy dreams of being a singer, the kuia plan a marriage for Makareta. In the ways in which these plans, individual or communal, are frustrated there are ironies and surprises, the stuff of a good tale, but also the sense of some mysterious, powerful and irrational force, a force which allows Missy to step forward when the time comes, which allows Makareta to find Mata against all the likelihood of logic, which allows the unborn and the dead to move freely in the story. This is the force of myth, and in turn of social cohesion and belief, and the source of the solidity and ease of Grace’s work.

It is possible to see Cousins as a picture of the stresses and changes experienced in Maori society in the last 50 years, or as a moving tribute to the strength and courage of Maori women – almost all the men are peripheral and inadequate – and the blurb encourages both interpretations. But it is a complex, subtle and beautifully constructed vision of the interplay between the individual and the group that it is most powerful and wide-reaching. No judgements are made: both are valued. As readers who live in a society in which sharing and belonging are outdated concepts, we, may view this with nostalgia; but such is the conviction and the skill with which Grace writes in Cousins that we are humbled here by what we have lost.


Elizabeth Caffin is managing editor of Auckland University Press.



Tagged with: , , , ,
Posted in Fiction, Literature, Review
Search the archive
Search by category