Half a good book, John McCrystal

The Trowenna Sea
Witi Ihimaera
Penguin Books, $37.00,
ISBN 9780143202455

First, let’s deal with the distractions. Unless you were living under a rock in the latter part of 2009, you will be aware that Witi Ihimaera found himself in a degree of wai wera over several instances of plagiarism in this novel. It was uncovered through some remarkable detective work by the New Zealand Listener’s reviewer, Jolisa Gracewood. It’s not the first time Ihimaera has been accused of poaching material from other authors without the proper acknowledgements: the unattributed use of a passage from An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand in his 1986 novel, The Matriarch, was noticed by historian Keith Sorrenson, who wrote the original article.

When I first heard about The Trowenna Sea transgressions, I half-expected, especially in light of Ihimaera’s intriguing experimentation with upgrading and politicising his back catalogue, some kind of post-colonial defence to be mounted to the Listener’s allegations. After all, indigenous peoples often complain of the misappropriation of their stories when their history is written by the coloniser, in the same way that many also believe some part of the personality or prestige of the individual is taken away when their image is preserved in art or photography. By this token, taking the stories back, with interest – both the substance and its expression – might be seen as an act of counter-colonial retribution, like stealing from the soul-catcher.

When the Listener duly confronted Ihimaera, he offered an odd combination of fulsome mea culpa and apparent lack of apology. For while, on the one hand, he berated himself – was “pissed off” – that he had fallen short of his personal code of ethics in dealing with the work of others, he pointed out that the plagiarised material amounted to less than two pages’ worth of a 528-page novel. He subsequently mumbled something about “exciting experimentation” with the concept of historical fiction, but ultimately, there was no satisfactory explanation as to how or why a distinguished professor of literature should make such an undergraduate “error”.

Enough, already. And it will suffice to mention in passing that there are other distractions in The Trowenna Sea, too. Those gadflies of the historical novel, anorak-wearing pedants, will note a number of minor anachronisms. Sometimes these serve an artistic purpose, as where an agent for the New Zealand Company invites his audience, in terms of which the 19th century was innocent, to get in “on the ground floor” of the colonial New Zealand economy. At others, they don’t. Ihimaera has the McKissock family celebrating a very modern Christmas in colonial Australia, complete with a gift-giving Father Christmas, when this custom was in its absolute infancy in Victorian England. And while it may, stretching a point, be possible to claim that automobiles were “far from rare” in Tasmania in 1903, you would have struggled to find anything sporting a “dicky-seat”.

Other editorial errors occur. There are many instances of words missing from sentences. And at one point, the names of a pair of characters – Clara and her daughter, Georgina – are switched. Editorial lapses. Mere distractions.

Historical fiction is a kind of colouring-in exercise. It’s putting flesh on the bones of history, constructing the inner lives of “real-life” characters and the motives for their decisions in order to match a pre-existing narrative arc. The “facts” themselves are less important than the verisimilitude of the characters, the plausibility of the settings. You may take liberties with history, that is, but to succeed, you must observe the conventional rules of fiction.

The true story at the heart of The Trowenna Sea is a cracker, and a natural fit for Ihimaera, whose recent work is preoccupied with the impacts upon colonised peoples of colonialism. It’s that of Hohepa Te Umuroa, who was among the hapless few New Zealanders to have suffered transportation as a punishment for a crime.

Te Umuroa was of Ngati Hau from the Whanganui River, and was charged and convicted with rebellion against the Queen after he and a group of others were linked to an attack on colonial soldiers in the Hutt Valley. Five of the group were sent to Van Diemen’s Land (as Tasmania was previously known), and subsequently to the penal colony on Maria Island. Thanks in part to the vocal opposition in Tasmania to the whole transportation system, and in no small part to widespread disquiet about the dubious legal grounds for their conviction, the Maori were received as prisoners of conscience rather than as malefactors. The good treatment they received notwithstanding, Te Umuroa died on Maria Island, apparently of tuberculosis. His remains weren’t repatriated to his people until 1988.

Intertwined with Te Umuroa’s story are those of John Jennings Imrie and his wife Etty Bailey, who were Te Umuroa’s enlightened gaolers on Maria Island. In order “to honour the original Imrie and Bailey families and not fictionalise their lives”, Ihimaera modelled a fictitious couple, Gower McKissock and Ismay Glossop, on them, and wove their lives in parallel.

The novel is divided into two “books” and an epilogue. The first brings each of the characters to Tasmania: Ismay and Gower from (respectively) Scotland and England, Hohepa from the Whanganui. The second describes their fates: the deepening of Ismay’s relationship with Hohepa, Hohepa’s tragic death in exile, Gower’s survival into old age. The epilogue describes the occasion of the return of Hohepa’s remains.

The narrative point of view is mostly shared between these three principal characters: Gower reminiscing as an old man caught up in the overthrow of white Rhodesia, and his former self speaking through his journals; Ismay muttering at the request of her nosy granddaughter that she recall the detail of her life, and deciding what to leave in and what to leave out; Hohepa speaking, as Maori do, from the eternal present, both of his life and of his afterlife, his long, lonely wait for his people to come and claim him.

It’s curious that in the first half of the novel, it is the European characters rather than the Maori for whom the author seems to have most affinity. Certainly Ismay and Gower are more rounded characters than Hohepa, who has been politically loaded up and who simply sags under the weight.  He functions at the beginning as more of a plot device to tug the narrative around the hotspots in Aotearoa in the decade straddling the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. He’s a kind of Maori Forrest Gump, inserted into the frame with any number of notable personages from the uneasy crouch-touch-pause-engage period of our history: Te Rauparaha, Te Rangihaeata, Bishop Pompallier, missionaries Richard Taylor and Henry Williams, Governor William Hobson, Hone Heke and Colonel William Wakefield.

He manages to be at the Wairau Affray (or Massacre, as it was known then) and at the signing of the Treaty itself, as well as involved in the raid on Boulcott’s Farm in the Hutt Valley. He may well have been at all these places, and all these events, but for the purposes of the novel, there’s so much movement that it’s hard to get any kind of fix on his character.

Thankfully in “Book Two”, if not so happily in reality, Te Umuroa goes nowhere, and he begins to take form. But he’s never a fully realised character, and the effect is to skew the story to the Pakeha perspective. We know Ismay and Gower very well; Te Umuroa remains other. This may have been a deliberate artistic decision.

The main problem with the novel is the obtrusiveness of the research. Long passages where period details are described compromise the authenticity of the voices: descriptions of Victorian Wolverhampton sound like they’re right out of a history textbook rather than Ismay’s recollection; a run-down of the defences of Fort Richmond sound more like James Cowan than the fresh-out-of-the-bush Te Umuroa. In both cases there’s a very good reason for this. Most of the discussion around The Trowenna Sea has focused on the use of primary sources in their undigested form. Even without knowing the full extent of it – and one suspects it’s greater than has been revealed – it’s hard to read the first half of the book without getting the impression the author has lazily opted to use swatches of pasted historical colour rather than bother to get out his own paintbox.

At the root of it all, however – and tragically as it seems – Te Umuroa’s story is too good to be completely bungled. The second half of the novel draws far more from the author’s imagination – and the style shifts to magic realism – and it’s no coincidence, therefore, that this half packs an emotional punch. It’s a tantalising glimpse of what might have been: well-handled, this could have been an excellent historical novel instead of half a good book – a thing of which neither the author nor his publisher can be proud.


John McCrystal is a Wellington writer and reviewer.


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