If Witi Ihimaera is a national treasure, he is an impishly unpredictable one. At an age when he could be securely serene, he persists with youthful glee in taking literary risks. With swashbuckling facility, he leaps from genre to genre. Social realism, historical fiction, mythical-magical realism, gay confessional, re-imaged Mansfield, fictive cinema noir, pastiche Western – he has done them all, from young adult to extremely adult. Now he’s taking on Peter Jackson. Sky Dancer is a mythic, galactic, super-digitalised story of massed warring birds and dizzying leaps through time and space, copious in visual spectacle and huge in narrative scale.
The conception is entirely filmic. It’s aimed, I think, at young adults, though after The Whale Rider‘s revival as the book of the (adult) film, you can’t blame the publisher for not saying so. The narrative is lively, the humour basic, and the writing mostly undemanding. Apart from quite frequent bird noises, and recurrent lists of birds’ names, like Homeric catalogues of heroes, it rarely troubles to give verbal pleasure, in eloquence, or musicality – by contrast, say, with the aural resourcefulness of Patricia Grace. Here, prose functions mainly as a storyboard for the reader’s visual imagination, which is lavishly, extravagantly, indulged. In scene after spectacular scene of violent battles, breathtaking roller-coaster chases, chilling journeys to the cosmic void, desperate fights to the death with gigantic monsters, all set against the awesome New Zealand landscape (sorry about the clichés but the book seems to insist), it reads like a gauntlet thrown at the feet of Weta Workshop.
The book opens cinematically (pre-title credits, I suspect) with a bird’s eye view from an aggressive seashag. It divebombs the car in which prickly damaged Skylark O’Shea is arriving with her ex-TV star mother at a bone-peoply little South Island fishing port, where they hope to escape the mother’s drug and man problems. Instead they find themselves among ancestral voices prophesying war, as a pair of elderly, wise Maori sisters reveal that the time is nigh for the manu moana (seabirds) to wage a new war for the territory granted by Tane to the manu whenua (landbirds). Skylark has been recognised as the long-foretold saviour of the landbirds, and becomes the target of terrorist bombings by seagulls, gathering ominously in several Hitchcockian scenes. With the help of a shy pectoral hunk of a Maori garage mechanic called Arnie, a road tour round Aotearoa (lots of good local colour) to meet a series of eccentric guardians of the mythic tradition (great cameo roles for the cuzzybros), a quick flip through a time portal (Stargate, that one is called, I think), transformation into birds, two major Tolkienian battles between bird armies, a journey to the source of creation and back, near-death between the incisors of the Mother-Monster from Aliens 2, several climactic escapes, some Greens manifesto speeches about the environment, and heart-rending self-sacrifice by the crippled elderly sister, she succeeds. (In being the long-foretold saviour, that is, in case you, too, lost track.)
As I hope this summary suggests, it is ebulliently inventive. It didn’t give me such a headache as Moulin Rouge, but its relentless mobility of effect is similar. It would, seriously, make terrific special effects movie material, and maybe spin off a Play Stations battle game version – “Brute Bird Force”. Yet it cunningly anchors all its fantasy on a small set of simple Kiwi caricatures. Datedly feminist Skylark, vapid vain mum Coral, lumbering blokey Arnie, and the old sisters spatting in their 1950s radio comedy way – not even the most heroically-challenged reader will feel marginalised by their adventures.
Such familiarity breeds some losses. The almost ubiquitous joke is to respond to powerful or mystical concepts with some derogatory throwaway of contemporary idiom. The fight with the fearsome pouakai (the Aliens monster) is ended when old sister Hoki, in the shape of the mythic bird Hokioi, “bit the pouakai on the bum”. “Shouldn’t that be ‘pecked’?” I asked, dourly unamused. The best monsters stay fearsome.
In the ultimate depths of the universe, where “The forces at work were cataclysmic, thunderous”, Hokioi, challenged by the godlike guardians of Te Kore (The Void) and Te Po (The Night) offers them her PO box and Social Security numbers. “What is this, a quiz show?” she demands, and finally thinks: “Goodness, this was worse than getting your eftpos number wrong at Big Save.” Reluctant to leave the joke, the author adds: “She didn’t dare ask for Fly Buy points as she passed through the gateway.”
This compulsion to subvert the supernatural with the supermarket implies a kind of contempt for the very myths the book otherwise energetically revives, although its motive was probably to sell them. I dislike the habit not only because it is such a cliché in modern Hollywood, but because it subscribes to the widespread dumbing down of valued myth into commercialised Disneyworld slogans, the “Zero to Hero” formula. Today’s readers/viewers, including young adults, can surely still be trusted to suspend disbelief, and enter with full seriousness the fantasy that is the work’s whole point. When Scrooge taunts Marley’s ghost with being just a piece of undigested cheese, Dickens gets the same laugh, but then he scares the hell out of Scrooge and the reader with spectral horror so convincing and resonant that the fear of it never leaves the text, however comic its ending.
I may be the wrong age group, however. My young-adult consultant/granddaughter, Claire Reweti, liked the eftpos joke: “It’s funny – not hilarious, but comical. And, no, I don’t mind him being funny about Te Po.”
The whole book flutters back and forth between the numinous and the ludicrous. That may be indicated in the pun of the main character’s name, Skylark. Sometimes it’s heavily goofy, but Witi can also be witty. Early on, I smugly thought of my “Lord of the Wings” headline, only to find that on page 291 he used it first. His deftness and charm get away with things that in other writers would be sentimentality. He even brings dear crippled old Hoki back to life after we have soaked our hankies for her heroic death, resuscitating her as a talking bird, mischievous as Enid Blyton’s Kiki.
I will carry away with gratitude from Sky Dancer its vivid remaking of Maori bird myth, its pervasive sense of the living force of the pre-human New Zealand forest, some sinister Hitchcock moments, and its splendid visual spectacle. I am left, too, with two thoughts about his work as a whole at this point. Although in places a book like Sky Dancer fails, those failures come from an astonishing willingness to take risks, and are overridden by the energy and inventiveness of the work as a whole. And beneath all his experiments with subject and genre lies a base of thought and observation that has been fully absorbed into the literary imagination.
Just before writing this review, with Sky Dancer in my mind, I happened to visit Whangara, location of The Whale Rider. For Witi, location is not the right word. He used to bike over often as a boy, I was told, and sit in the shade and write stories. Those who find his writing too quick, too shallow, or too gimmicky – all of which it sometimes is – will do well to remember how long he has been brewing its materials, especially those relating to Maori life, belief and thinking, and how deeply he knows and re-imagines them.
Roger Robinson’s most recent book is Robert Louis Stevenson: His Best Pacific Writings (Streamline Creative, 2003).