Colonial views, Gavin McLean

Massacre Bay: A 19th Century Saga of Colonial Life
Ken Gunn,
The Book Guild, $39.95

Ken Gunn’s handsomely produced hardback historical novel, Massacre Bay, takes us back to the early days of Pakeha settlement in Nelson province. It tells the story of Thomas and Elizabeth Deane, starting with the latter’s suicide in 1876 in an isolated bush clearing. Elizabeth’s unhappiness, caused by her marriage to her ne’er do well husband, Thomas, forms the central part of this story, which starts with her death, then swings back to Thomas’s arrival in the colony in 1857, moves forward to their marriage and concludes with Thomas’s subsequent death.

While the action is limited and the pace is measured, the detailed description of everyday life in Pakeha colonial New Zealand exercises its own genuine fascination. Gunn’s love of this period in our history shines through the book as he moves back and forth in time and place between Nelson, the Australian penal colonies and the Jacobite rebellion. Here, perhaps, the book falters somewhat as a novel, as Gunn tries to pack in too much ‘background’, and there is one bad moment in chapter 16 where a clumsy switch from third person to first person had me wondering.


Gavin McLean is an historian with the Historic Places Trust.



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