Fishing for Māui by Isa Pearl Ritchie (Te Rā Aroha Press, 2018), 366pp., $34.99
Fishing for Māui opens with an inconsequential death on the first page – or rather, the belated realisation that something once vital (here, a plum tree) has been dead for some time. This moribund motif reverberates throughout Isa Pearl Ritchie’s novel: the sense that something is broken, dead or dying, along with an accompanying sense of futility. Drawing upon her doctoral thesis on food sovereignty and her experience growing up in a bicultural family, Ritchie has written a multi-perspective novel about food, whānau and mental illness in Aotearoa New Zealand. Although the conduits differ for each character – kai, indigenous culture, adultery, drugs, activism – there is a real hunger in this book for wellness, freedom, self-acceptance and a better life. Through various Kiwi voices, Ritchie addresses some of our most pressing domestic issues: family discord, mental illness, physical health and racism. Unfortunately, this multivocal work never quite harmonises or achieves momentum.
Ritchie uses a simple three-part structure, with ‘The Calm’, ‘The Storm’ and ‘The Aftermath’ occurring between spring 2011 and autumn 2012. Within these parts each character speaks in turn, gradually building themselves into a coherent (if clichéd) whole. The matriarch, Valerie, is an overweight, stressed-out GP who relays her ongoing struggles to raise four children as a solo mother. Elena, the eldest daughter, is heavily pregnant, distinctly orthorexic, and obsessed with her wholefoods/wellness blog. Much to her partner’s chagrin (and sexual frustration), Elena finds permanence in cyberspace, proof of her self-worth in comment threads and online interactions with fellow food-bloggers. Her segments are blandly confessional, admitting to food ‘crimes’ such as succumbing to late-night cravings for trans-fats, then expiating these sins through brewing kombucha.
Michael, a surfer-stoner uni student and Valerie’s eldest son, is intent on understanding and immersing himself in te ao Māori and Māoritanga. He is resentful of his mother for withholding this source of cultural identity and belonging from her children, and judges Valerie for her ignorance and indifference to all that is Māori. (But, as we learn, Valerie could scarcely have done otherwise, having herself been raised by a mother who thought she was doing the right thing in preventing her children from speaking te reo in order to ensure their success in te ao Pākehā: ‘When I was growing up it was shameful to be Māori … like the last survivors of an apocalypse, [Mum’s] generation was forced to adapt, surrendering their dying culture.’) Ritchie weaves together Michael’s millennial sources of nirvana (surfing, sex, summer festivals with ‘the boyz’, joints on the beach) with lessons from his Nan on tikanga and folklore, as well as what he has gleaned from independent reading. Like most of his family, he remains indifferent to the global issues that vex his girlfriend Evie (dismissing, among other things, her concerns about ‘peak oil, or something’). A callow hedonist, egocentric and self-proclaimed demi-god, Michael’s psychological deterioration is the storm at the structural centre of this novel. His earnest cultural seeking (‘I don’t even look Māori, but I am. I need to be …’) gradually evolves into cultural anxiety, paranoia and delusions of grandeur. Believing himself to be the reincarnation of Māui, he ultimately breaches marae protocol in a psychotic episode that shakes his whānau. Unfortunately, although we see this cringe-worthy breach of tikanga from three different perspectives, this pivotal moment does not land with much power or gravitas.
Evie (perhaps the most compelling character) is not family, but practically whāngai. A rebel-with-multiple-causes, she is Michael’s polar opposite significant other: an elusive and emotionally complex bisexual, staunch animal rights activist, and politically engaged vegan (anaemic and anorexic-adjacent, of course). It is disappointing to know, even before any physical description, that this beautiful soul will be a free-spirit trapped in a desirable waif’s body: some exotic hybrid of the Millennium trilogy’s Lisbeth Salander and a Victoria’s Secret model. Why do independent women have to be ‘fragile’ and ‘beautiful’? Because otherwise, they wouldn’t have meaningful or covetable lives. It’s a depressing predictability. The only attractive women in this novel are ‘food Nazis’ who get ‘a bit anal over food’. In ways surely familiar to many readers, Evie and Elena are each glued to their own versions of moralised orthorexia, insulating themselves from the impurities of others through abstention and unsuccessful attempts at conversion. For Evie, meat is murder; milk is manslaughter. For Elena, moral superiority is synonymous with buying free-range and avoiding the plague of trans-fats (haughtily noting that ‘it takes the pleb population a while to catch up’), while abstaining from animal products is unnecessary martyrdom. Food hang-ups aside, no-one in this novel is a likely candidate for canonisation.
Near the end of Part I, two new voices emerge. One is Caleb, the drop-kick absentee father, sour with disappointment at a life that started out badly (‘a white Once Were Warriors’) and didn’t recover. He adds little. More significantly, we meet Gayle, Michael’s Nan and the Tainui kuia who revives the narrative scene with a powerful, subtle sweep of twentieth-century colonialism and assimilation, Plunket nurses, Hunn Report-era integration, and the effects of urbanisation on Māori. Gayle speaks compellingly about the earthiness, strength and life of te reo, and it is easy to see why Michael craves her kōrero and, through it, his tūrangawaewae (place to stand) in te ao Māori. Their interactions are vividly rendered. The supporting cast of siblings (the naïve eight-year-old, the aggressive high-school drop-out) and partners (the sexually frustrated baby-daddy, a lustful cliché) all take their turn in this slow-burn confessional, jockeying for position within the family hierarchy, and for moral superiority.
There are pockets of excellence. Ritchie sketches a sadly convincing tableau of a Kiwi Christmas, with family feuds punctuated by hot buttered carbs, roast animal flesh and alcohol. Ritchie also writes impactfully of Evie’s colposcopy and cervical cancer scare. There is real sensory capture here, with the reader almost able to feel the ‘long metal hole punch’ taking a biopsy of Evie’s cervix, the procedure ‘like chomping on numbed skin’. The frissons of sexual tension (Malcolm, scumbag-professor, for his svelte student; Evie for her boyfriend’s sister) are one of the most titillating aspects of the novel. What little satisfaction there is, however, occurs offstage. Through Michael, Ritchie captures some excellent moments on the echolalia of racism in New Zealand: media consumers repeating ad nauseam the hyper-individualistic media slant on Māori criminal tendencies, recidivism and socio-economic woes, obscuring both history and systemic inequalities. Michael’s laddish yarns also depict the internalised casual racism in this country. Despite his determined reclamation of indigeneity, he still laughs in genuine amusement when his mates call him a ‘half-caste’.
In the main, however, the prose is over-simple, the punctuation and grammar are discordant, and frequent typos distract from the story (one Christmas-time zinger involves ‘a small bowel of boiled potatoes’). The tone of the first-person narration seems to have been pulled from a generic women’s glossy or blog comments thread, which becomes tiresome when spread across almost every voice in the novel.
There is a compelling substratum of theory to this book, a grim undercurrent of socioeconomic critique. By focusing on the individual voices and sufferings within one whānau, Ritchie lightly traces some of the trials and tribulations of colonisation and, more recently, neoliberalism in Aotearoa. All the various ills the characters face – deracination, health scares, racism, overwork, exhaustion – are faced alone. A microcosm of modern New Zealand, Valerie’s family shows the explosion of individualism, solipsism and atomisation of modern life. Their problems stem from societal changes that have left people isolated and rudderless. They try to cure their anomie with hyper-individualism and pure, moralised consumption, but without any attempt to identify or resolve the broader, systemic sources of their problems. After his breakdown, Michael diagnoses this wider malaise: ‘My mind’s not broken, Mum – it’s our family. Our whānau is broken.’ But we know it’s more than that. Michael’s subsequent eureka moment hits the mark: ‘The world’s still broken.’ The problem is that it’s all rather didactic. We get a potted history of colonialism and the cultural and political renaissance of Māori, but at times the novel seems a clunky collage of New Zealand history lessons, inelegant rants, extended aphorisms and tropes from online think pieces. You can almost see the invisible footnotes: Michael Pollan on what to eat; Peter Gibbons on cultural colonisation; Moana Jackson on racism. Nor is there much sense of place. Despite town names and the occasional evocation of a particular surfing beach, there is little attention devoted to the landscape, the whenua.
Fishing for Māui holds a mirror to a society that is broken, in many ways, for many. And perhaps for all. This novel becomes an anti-capitalist tract, a critique of colonialism, neoliberalism and their attendant political, cultural and socio-economic ills. Ritchie shows that the Hydra-headed problems in New Zealand society require more compassion, the rebuilding and regrouping of communities, and commitment to systemic change. Individual efforts alone are not powerful or supportive enough. The message is strong. It’s a shame about some aspects of the medium.
EMMA GATTEY is a junior barrister at Thorndon Chambers, Wellington, currently based in Cambridge, UK. She studied law and history at the University of Otago, delving deeply into the intersection of tikanga Māori and the common law. She has recently been published as a co-author of Eugenics at the Edges of Empire and Feminist Judgments of Aotearoa.