Īnangahua Gold by Kathleen Gallagher (KingFisher Publishing, 2018), 183pp, $30; In the Time of the Manaroans by Miro Bilbrough (Victoria University Press, 2020), 300pp, $40
Through a third lockdown in the United Kingdom, I’ve had the immense pleasure of devouring two works by New Zealand authors, both indelibly marked by aroha ki te taiao (love of nature). One, a slender historical novel of emotional heft. The other, a masterwork memoir of—to borrow the language of the author Miro Bilbrough—‘feral dreaming’.
First, Īnangahua Gold. This beautiful nugget of a book is thriftily bound in what must be recycled paper, but is worth its weight in gold. Kathleen Gallagher’s compact yet expansive novel time-switches between 1857, tracking an odd threesome’s westward trek along the Hurunui River on the East Coast of the South Island, and 1877, centring on the West Coast settlement of Īnangahua. The 1857 expedition party is led by Raureka, Ngāi Tahu guide and exemplar of mana wāhine (power/strength of women), and Murphy, a recent Irish immigrant who occasionally flares up into anti-British, anti-imperial ire at their paymaster, Pepper. The latter is a credible caricature of the colonial Englishman abroad, and desperate to ‘be the first Englishman to cross’ the Southern Alps and thus win naming rights to the pass. Pepper is volatile, racist, a least-favoured son. One moment, he cannot believe he is travelling with ‘a Māori Princess and an Irish scholar gypsy’, and the next, he resents ‘that Irish scoundrel’ and ‘that Māori servant’. He is terrified of this unfamiliar, unbiddable land and those who love it.
Twenty years later we turn to Irish settler family life on the West Coast Te Tai Poutini: scenes of domestic bliss are enlivened by the odd reel on St Patrick’s Day and intermingled with violence and prejudice. In its firm West Coast setting, gold-mining focus, and cross-cultural relationships—the roles and romances of Māori, Chinese, Bavarians and Irish-Pākehā—this novel recalls Eleanor Catton’s magisterial The Luminaries, but is pared down and more expressly environmentalist. Gallagher’s Māori and Irish characters lament the blood- and land-lust that accompany mining, and its nightmarish devastation of the earth: ‘When gold fever comes, these precious taonga are forgotten.’
In staccato dialogue between Pepper and Murphy, Gallagher captures English-Irish tensions over colonisation and its discontents. Occasionally, however, their debates seem unrealistically civil. After calmly recounting the litany of English violence inflicted on Ireland as ‘a troubled history’, Murphy notes the domino effect of these first colonialist crimes: ‘Your folk took our land and cut down our forests to build ships. Then sailed off in the ships and took other folks’ land and destroyed their livelihood, as you did ours.’ And they walk quietly on.
Īnangahua Gold pulses with an undercurrent of Māori and Irish anti-colonial solidarity, but with narrative limits. There is, for example, no mention of the uncomfortable simultaneous history of Irish soldiers comprising two-thirds of British imperial troops in the New Zealand Wars (1845–72). No word, then, of the wars raging in Te Ika-a-Maui, nor any real acknowledgement of the Sinophobic violence raging across the colony.
Through divergent human relations with the environment, Gallagher explores identity and culture, revealing the distortion of values that accompanied the racist capitalism imported by the British to its colonies. While Pepper ‘walks as if he is in a tussle with the mountain regarding who has the right to exist’, Raureka is reverentially at one with the maunga, its scree, its flax, its wind, its rushing waters. So, too, are the Irish characters. Pepper wishes to ‘conquer’ the Southern Alps, while Raureka adores them as whanaunga, respects their mauri. Her hinengaro (intellect; consciousness) is nestled within the whenua. The mountaineering segments often recall Robert Macfarlane’s poetic riffs on the cultural power of mountains, and Nan Shepherd’s writing on the Cairngorms.
In a way which is literary technique in English, but a natural part of te ao Māori, Gallagher richly personifies the natural world: the swollen creek that ‘lets them pass through’, the mountains that shelter and expose travellers, the language of birdsong. Gallagher also makes liberal use of te reo Māori and Gaelic, often without translation, but with enough context for readers to muddle through (and learn something while muddling). The ontological significance of language is constantly illustrated throughout the novel. Ngā manu (birds), ngā kararehe (animals) and ngāi tipu (flora) are exclusively named in Māori. This seamless, natural use of te reo Māori is a crucial part of the long pathway towards decolonising New Zealand literature. It is to be congratulated and emulated.
Linkages are eventually drawn between the two periods, but Gallagher takes her time. And some connections remain nebulous, half-glimpsed through the ‘faery sheen’ on the Hurunui River. I cannot go further into this interconnection without spoilers, so let me just say this: the link is aroha. This is numinous, whenua-bound, whirlpool writing. It is confusing and delightful in its teasing links of whakapapa, its love for rivers and mountains, its eddies of decades-old memories.
There is something deeply theatrical about this novel, not in the sense of melodrama, but the sprawling cinematic. Īnangahua Gold comes alive on the page in the sense of a stage-play or film: finely written, strongly cast and well-directed. A visual treat, whether you’re a lockdown reader or not. There are minor flaws in this work, with several repetitive passages and occasional lapses in editorial attention (‘diary’ is repeatedly spelled ‘dairy’; the Ngāti Toa rangatira Te Rangihaeata is rendered as ‘Rangiheata’). These pedantries aside, this is a thoroughly engaging short work of historical fiction that begs to be filmed.
Miro Bilbrough’s In the Time of the Manaroans lustily offers up a very different slice of New Zealand history. Manaroa was part of New Zealand’s back-to-the-land movement, the moment when hippie communes were sprouting like fungal delicacies in the 1960s and 1970s. Neither Jerusalem nor Centrepoint, Manaroa was a small community tucked into the Marlborough Sounds. A haven of sorts. But, as Bilbrough later realises, this ‘adult society’ her father and his hippie friends allowed her into ‘offered deceptively egalitarian access that was heaven, hell and a limbo of ennui in between’. Before we reach Manaroa, we pass through Bilbrough’s tumultuous childhood: from a human ‘storm in a teacup’, raised by her severe communist grandmother in Wellington, to her self-sufficient teenage years in various Nelson lodgings. Finally, we reach Manaroa and its improvised abodes tucked into the pines, and the ingenuity and ‘dietary zealotry’ of the back-to-the-landers, living on rations scratched together from resources that oscillate between bounty and scarcity (with a few pot-bellied, malnourished children).
Because Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude was the novel du jour at Manaroa, Bilbrough often draws links to Macondo, the fictional hometown of the Buendía family. While there are some failed-utopian similarities, the Manaroan solitude is of a different genus. For starters, Bilbrough slates its residents as ‘white collar exiles’: silver-spooned hippies of privilege. Moreover, theirs was no magical realist existence. Reading about rural Aotearoa New Zealand communes while in a UK lockdown is almost enough to conjure up a false nostalgia for collective living, but not quite. Bilbrough quickly douses these imaginative flames, pouring cold water over utopian, romanticised images of communes from that era. It wasn’t all creative writing workshops or sultry nude gardening for organic kale. Bilbrough recounts in grim detail how ‘collectivism [was] a hazy ideal … none quite knows how to enact’. On bad days, if no mānuka had been chopped and stored, it could take half a day just to make a cup of tea. Work was constant; minor chores became epic labours. Excepting her own family, there were ‘no other self-identifying artists or writers’ at Manaroa, and political debates were scarce. Far from deeply ideological or principled foundations, Manaroa was ‘no more than a congregation of moody individualists’, content with their ‘snow globe’ insultation from politics and current affairs. Muldoon, along with ‘the entire political establishment’, scarcely existed to the Manaroans. Instead, nihilist and anti-intellectual, they were enveloped in ‘group politics and bitchy takedowns’. Further, maintaining intimacies was never prioritised. Bilbrough’s self-professed ‘situational agility’ meant she was often severed from friends: a master of letting go. This was a necessary cultivated skill in their ‘culture of comings and goings’, with its ‘perpetual gaining and shedding’ of people. Bilbrough writes with a desperate melancholy, yet no rancour, of this age of tenuous relationships.
Sex, however, is the biggest turn-off. And Bilbrough means it to be. Her memoir opens with a premature sexual being: four years old, crushing hard, she recalls: ‘One thing I know, I have an appetite for this man.’ She closes by acknowledging that the ‘inverse relation of sexual joy to experimentation and boundary crossing has troubled me as I write. I have wished it could be otherwise.’ This entire memoir is testament to the ‘cellular joy’ which, long deprived of rewarding sexual experiences, ‘vested itself elsewhere’. Bilbrough’s youth was pockmarked by the uncommitted attentions of ‘substance-soaked men’; desultory, ‘unsuccessful sympathy sex’; the constant ‘opportunism of older hippy men’ and the ensuing ‘murky transactions’; and her own complex desires and disappointments at ‘the indiscreet stare that never arrives’. One line is summative: ‘Casual sex I present as the choice I believe it to be.’ This palimpsest of non-negotiated, barely-consented-to sexual encounters makes for depressing, triggering reading. And yet, through a magical combination of no beer (too expensive) and the need to preserve relationships on the tiny commune, Manaroa, in Bilbrough’s recollections, wasn’t sleazy. Still, her increasingly violent sexual relationship with another Manaroan eventually leads to her moving to Wellington. (Even if the blow doesn’t connect, a swipe with a sickle does tend to end things.)
Bilbrough often exercises her ‘mercenary eye’, that steely glint that women turn remorselessly on other women: assessing them, coveting them, diminishing them, while uttering quiet mantras of self-loathing. But her vision is not merely mercenary. Bilbrough turns a keen analytical eye on deep selves and relationships, appreciatively noting one host-mother who had ‘outgrown motherhood, and maybe the holding pattern of her marriage, too’. Her wry, parenthetical observations cut to the quick of whichever grimy context she is ensconced in: the hippie clans ‘drunk on mythologies’, or New Zealand society at large: ‘we are not as post-colonial as we think we are’. This ‘young and unforgiving eye’ is a rewarding historical and sociological lens, especially leavened with Bilbrough’s realisation that her contemporaries—trapped in her critical crosshairs—were also ‘in like formation’, still growing up.
Competing with so much tantalising substance, and with stirring black-and-white photographs, Bilbrough’s prose style is perhaps the finest feature of this book. She is a master of evocative metaphor, dances quixotically with words—sometimes only just darting away from purple prose—and is darkly, idiosyncratically funny (‘My grandmother is nothing if not generous with the ruin of her body.’). Her one-liner descriptions of individuals are remarkably suggestive (‘Dean, a mildly tattooed lady on sabbatical from her street smarts’) and she’s incisive on class relations in late twentieth-century New Zealand, in ghoulish imagined dialogue with her late grandmother. It is tempting to see Bilbrough as an antipodean Djuna Barnes, the brilliant American expatriate in the ultra-modernist 1920s Paris: an accomplished artist, illustrator and writer who grew up in a household in which sex was everywhere. Bilbrough, too, has become a dazzling expatriate creative, and she, too, experienced serious, serial sexual assaults and misadventures as a young woman, blistered along a difficult spectrum of asymmetrical power dynamics, consent and confused ‘free love’. But Bilbrough is too grounded in te taiao for the comparison to hold compelling. She adores the natural world, and her multi-hyphenate, super-adjectival descriptions recall those of nature writers J.A. Baker and Macfarlane:
The spermy smell of so many young, green things prevails. River-cold, frost-astringent, rain-bitten, mud-whiffy, fennel-seeding, silage and birds’ nests: the smell of the Wakamarina Valley. The green is so green it is a drug, an emerald intoxicant that fills eye and nostril.
Throughout, and despite all the ‘murky’ sexual transactions, dislocations, the ‘feral dreaming’ and ‘self-inflicted rural poverty’ of Manaroa, Bilbrough holds true to herself: ‘I am a warped slip of wilderness, but my own.’ She resided in her own slipstream, living a ‘difficult freedom’, but one which was self-determined. Timely words, for a new period of difficult freedoms.
EMMA GATTEY is a writer and critic from Ōtautahi. She is working on a PhD in history at the University of Cambridge.