In her long career as a writer of both novels and short fiction, Patricia Grace has shown remarkable consistency in her publishing pattern: invariably, the publication of a collection of short stories has been followed by a novel, which in turn has been followed by a collection of short stories. Dogside Story is Grace’s fifth novel and the first to break that pattern; with Baby No-Eyes in 1998 and Dogside Story in 2001, Grace, for the first time, has produced two novels in a row.
It was this break with a tradition of her own making that initially raised my curiosity about Dogside Story. Was this novel, as the title seems to suggest, originally conceptualised as a short story? If so, what was so significant about this “story” that it could not be told in three or maybe 30 pages? That required all of 301 pages? Further, if it broke Grace’s habitual publishing pattern, what were the chances that this novel also broke other, more significant traditions established over her long publishing history?
My expectations were initially disappointed when I picked up the book and read the blurb on the back cover, which, rather than note such potential shifts, promised continuity by aligning Dogside Story with Grace’s 1986 novel Potiki. Upon reading Dogside Story, however, I quickly realised that beyond superficial similarities in setting (coastal) and protagonists (handicapped), both novels are very different indeed.
Like Potiki, Dogside Story is an intensely political novel, which shows itself acutely aware of the challenges facing Maori-dom. Yet as the nature of these challenges has changed over the years, so have the strategies needed for critical intervention. In 1986 – two years after Donna Awatere’s Broadsheet essays were published in book form as Maori Sovereignty – it was above all questions of decolonisation and cultural nationalism that demanded (fictional) attention. Fifteen years on, it is still survival strategies that are being sought as Maori face second and third generation welfare dependency and ongoing intergenerational violence; this quest, however, is now taking new forms. “Culturalism” is no longer a satisfactory answer – if it ever was – and when Maori today describe themselves as suffering from “post-colonial traumatic stress disorder”, they do so not simply to lay blame at the door of the Pakeha, but to try and unravel the psychology behind “Maori crime”. In 2001, Maori are increasingly taking responsibility for what is rotten in Maoridom. It is a task which involves holding up a mirror to Maoridom and facing up to some of the hard questions that might be reflected there – a task that Dogside Story has taken on.
In a review of Grace’s 1998 novel Baby No-Eyes in the March 1999 issue of New Zealand Books, Nelson Wattie remarked that the voice of what he calls the “author-in-the-book” was too strongly intertwined with those of the various character-narrators. Dogside Story avoids that problem by clearly separating figural from authorial narration. The figural narration, relating the young man Te Rua’s point of view, is familiar territory for Grace; authorial narration, on the other hand, at least in its sustained form, provides new narrative possibilities. Playing with (im)partiality, Grace uses this narrative stance to tell the “first part of the story”, which is a story of the past.
In this story, the rivalry between the two sisters Ngarua and Maraenohonoho leads to the division of their community. Maraenohonoho – nomen est omen – remains with the ancestral marae, whereas Ngarua moves across the inlet. The two communities become known as Godside and Dogside, respectively, an anagram that draws attention to the fact that the communities’ opposing nature feeds on an underlying sameness. While Godside becomes known for its piety and properness, Dogsiders are forever wayward. Unable to rest in the cultural traditions that are Godside’s raison d’être, Dogsiders become “[m]overs, changers, seekers”. While Godsiders, quite literally, have God on their side, Dogsiders become what the majority of Maori have become in Aotearoa/New Zealand: underdogs. It is their story that Dogside Story tells.
What makes Dogside Story so different from Potiki (or from any of Grace’s other novels for that matter) is the location of the dramatic conflict: for the first time in a Grace novel, conflict is motivated intra- rather than inter-culturally. For the first time, that is, it is not primarily the interaction with Pakeha that poses a challenge for Maori, but Maoridom itself. Though the novel features Pakeha characters, they blur into insignificance as more pressing issues unfold.
And pressing these issues are, both in the novel and contemporary Aotearoa/New Zealand: economic survival in isolated areas, drug abuse, jealousy, incest, child neglect, etc. Diverse as they are, these different concerns are held together by a straightforward plot relating the whanau’s plans to take advantage of their East Coast location during the general millennium hype and set up a tourist venture to finance the building of a new wharekai. What unites them beyond the immediate necessities of the plot – and what is ultimately of far greater significance – is the secrecy that surrounds them. Illegal substances are grown in secret locations and crayfish pots are secretly lifted for personal profit; 10-year old Kiri, the archetypal “Kid”, is tied to Te Rua by one secret and to “The Aunties” by another. Because secrets figure so prominently in Dogside Story, a proper outline of the plot is impossible without revealing the very secrets the novel relies on for its dramatic tension. Suffice it to say that it is the secrecy surrounding Kid that provides the backbone of the novel. As the secrets are revealed, layer by layer, harmony is slowly restored.
In this emphasis on secrecy, Dogside Story is reminiscent of “Flower Girls”, one of Grace’s most haunting short stories. Here, five girls, purportedly social misfits, are (never quite) revealed to be victims of sexual violation. Due to repetition and a sudden shift in point of view, the last lines of the story reverberate in the mind of the reader long after the story closes: “They were good girls, deserving of the names of flowers, who had kept the secret of themselves and the big man – kept the secret, kept the secret, kept the secret, kept the secret.” The sudden insight into the nature of this “secret” turns the reader into an unwilling accomplice: aware, yet unable to act. What Grace here recreates for the reader is a harrowing situation of powerless awareness that – if reports of recent cases of child abuse within Maoridom are anything to go by – all too many Maori find themselves confronted with. Discovering dark secrets that are unacknowledged by the rest of the family, they remain caught between moral responsibility and loyalty to their whanau.
Though the secrets in Dogside Story are of a different nature, their impact is no less destructive. It is in the uncompromising demand for the assumption of moral responsibility and the lifting of dark secrets, then, that Dogside Story’s political import lies. To stop “wrong” from being passed on from one generation to the next in ever-repeating cycles, so the novel suggests, skeletons need to be pulled from the cupboards: “‘Somewhere, wrong has to stop,’ Tini said. ‘To make it stop we got to know what it is.’” But whose task is this? Who has the power to stop it? In answer to such questions, the novel sends out an un-equivocal challenge: “‘Free yourselves. Don’t carry the bruises, or pass on the bruises. Your mother’s poison has to stop right now. Free yourselves.’”
While such a challenge might appear to move Grace into Alan Duff territory, Grace wouldn’t be Grace if she had not taken great care to emphasise her trust in the ability of Maori to master it. Though an element of threat is part of any challenge, its blow can be softened if the confrontation with uncomfortable truths takes place within the safety of Maori institutional contexts – “There had to be a hui” – away from the courts and media of the majority culture and their culturally insensitive gaze. And, in the subtle fashion that is so typical of Grace’s work, the novel provides its own illustration of how empowering the revelation of secrets can be: Te Rua’s limited third-person narrative, initially told in a fragmentary, stream-of-consciousness style, changes once the character lays bare his secret and owns up to the consequences. As Te Rua assumes responsibility, healing sets in, and the sentence fragments give way to coherent narrative.
A challenge, then, is the offering that Dogside Story makes in answer to some of the problems currently facing Maoridom. It is not an easy offering to accept and might sit uncomfortably with many Maori because of the high demands it makes of them: honesty, responsibility, initiative, and a great deal of courage. In writing this novel, Grace herself has displayed all those qualities. It can’t have been an easy book to write and it isn’t always an easy book to read, but then, I suppose, not many important books are.
Simone Drichel is a postgraduate student in the School of English Film and Theatre at Victoria University of Wellington.
Dogside Story is in the long shortlist for this year’s Booker Prize.