Chappy, by Patricia Grace (Penguin Random House, 2015), 253 pp., $38
Readers have been eagerly awaiting Patricia Grace’s seventh novel, Chappy, for more than a decade. Her penultimate novel, Tu, came out in 2004, and the last of her seven short-story collections, Small Holes in the Silence, dates from 2006. Since then, however, she has been far from idle. In 2007, accompanied by her husband Kerehi Waiariki (Dick) Grace, she travelled to Monte Cassino in Italy where the battle described in Tu took place. They then went on to Crete in order to carry out research for the double biography, Ned & Katina: A true love story (2009), about a soldier from the Maori Battalion who fought in Crete and fell in love with a local lass. In 2008 she published a children’s story, Maraea and the Albatrosses / Ko Maraea Me Nga Toroa, illustrated by her brother, Brian Gunson.
Chappy is dedicated to her husband, who died in 2013, and is much missed. The novel relates the story of an injured and starving Japanese stowaway, Chappy, on a ship travelling from San Francisco to Wellington in the 1930s. Three days before the journey is completed Chappy is found by a Māori sailor named Aki, whose full name is Tiakiwhenua, signifying ‘to protect the land’ – and whose name turns out to be his destiny. Knowing that stowaways are often arrested on arrival or thrown overboard before a ship reaches its destination, Aki supplies Chappy with food and drink and smuggles him ashore when they arrive in New Zealand. He takes him home to his marae, where he is adopted by Aki’s parents Tanaa and Dorothea.
The mysterious disappearance of Aki’s little brother Marama or Moonface upset him so much that he left his home and family and went searching the world for him. He had felt extraordinarily close to Moonface, because he was the only one at home to help his mother when Moonface was born, and a special bond developed between them. He connects Moonface with Chappy, for at first glance Chappy looks like a ghost. The connection is reinforced when Chappy recalls his first encounter on the ship with Aki as ‘a large man, given extra height by a child he carried on his shoulders’ and ‘he knew he owed it to the giant and the child to survive’.
The main narrator in the novel is 21-year-old Daniel. Bored and disaffected, his attempt to study German at university has ended in a car crash. His mother Daphne decides to send him from his home in Switzerland to stay with his Māori grandmother, Oriwia, in New Zealand. Daniel comes from a rich but dysfunctional family and lacks any feeling of belonging. As he puts it: ‘I am dust blowing anywhere and nowhere’. Deracinated and restless, he hopes the trip to New Zealand will provide an opportunity to piece himself together. Daniel speaks German and Danish as well as English. He’s a cosmopolitan and Grace renders his voice neutral – quite different to that of the other two narrators, Aki and Oriwia. She creates two differentiated male voices and one specifically female voice with her usual consummate skill, demonstrating an exceptional ability to embody all of her characters, both male and female, and makes them real for the reader. Grace dramatises the ups and downs of the lives of the three main characters, Aki, Chappy and Oriwia, as transcribed and understood by Daniel.
Aki speaks Māori most of the time, and Oriwia translates his monologues into English for Daniel. She interrupts Aki’s narrative occasionally, but her contributions are mainly in writing. She also tells part of Chappy’s story, explaining that description and details came because she believed them and adding, ‘they lifted themselves out and put themselves on the page. I admit I surmised some of what I have written.’ Oriwia is therefore involved in the same activity as Grace herself, and Oriwia’s statement could be a hint as to how the book should be read.
It turns out that Daniel’s grandfather was Chappy, who died in 1981. The book is essentially about the love story between Chappy and Oriwia, as pieced together by Daniel in 1984. Chappy is described as mysterious and elusive, ‘a man without a country, without a family, without goods or money, and without papers’. Oriwia knew nothing about her husband’s family, except that it was in disgrace because his father had opposed Japanese expansion in China. Chappy himself was a pacifist; conscripted into the Japanese army to fight the Chinese, he could not bear the horrific impact of war. It haunted his dreams: ‘Missiles, bullets, sabres. Blood. Moving forward over severed heads and gouting bodies. Screams. Crying. City burning. Himself on fire awaiting death’ (p. 118). He was hospitalised and ran away, but as a deserter could not stay in Japan. His grandmother told him to change his name and helped him obtain a working passage to America. He lived with a basket maker in Hinode for six months and, while waiting for a suitable ship to be found, was taught basket making by the basket maker’s daughter. When he arrived in San Francisco he was robbed, beaten up and thrown into the harbour, but managed to climb aboard the ship on which Aki later found him.
It is a captivating book, and the narrative is epic and complex. In Grace’s novel Baby No-Eyes the protagonist Te Paania says:
There’s a way the older people have of telling a story, a way where the beginning is not a beginning, the end is not the end. It starts from a centre and moves away from there in such widening circles that you don’t know how you will finally arrive at the point of understanding which itself becomes another core, a new centre.
That is exactly how this novel functions. Chronology is discarded, and events are mentioned when characters feel the need to talk about them. Yet everything is linked and there is a point of understanding, which leads to a new story.
Chappy thrives working for Aki’s grandparents and learns Māori. After he has been there for two years Oriwia decides she wants to marry him. She explains why:
If I had married someone I’d known all my life (like Aki), I’d have understood almost everything about him. But the man I married was exotic. The unfathomable core, the unknown of him, was what made my heart beat. What I did know was that he loved and adored his daughters and me, that he knew how to work hard and that he had a clever mind and clever hands.
They have two daughters: Daniel’s mother, Daphne, and Virginia. Meanwhile Aki falls in love and marries a Hawaiian woman called Ela. He found work on a boat in that region of the Pacific and was settled in Hawai`i when World War II broke out. Aki joined the US Marines and was there when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour in November 1941.
Grace did a lot of research for the novel and gives us a convincing description of the attack. In two of her previous books, Tu and Ned and Katina, she had already proved her expertise at evoking battles. Aki suffered burns, but had the presence of mind to jump overboard and survived.
Meanwhile in New Zealand, anti-German feelings predominate. Oriwia’s local baker, Harry Krauss, is mistrusted – unjustly – because he is of German origin. He is interned on Somes Island. After the bombing of Pearl Harbour Chappy runs away, assuming that his presence will endanger his wife and children. The sudden disappearance of her husband, less than halfway through the book, causes Oriwia much heartache. He is eventually caught and also interned on Somes Island where he meets Harry Krauss, who uses the sign of a basket to make encoded references to Chappy’s presence in order to let Oriwia know where her husband is. But then Chappy is deported to Marmagao, India, and shipped back to Japan. They do not learn where he is until 13 years after the war ends, when Aki receives Chappy’s address in Tokyo via a friend. Aki goes in search of him and finds him in very bad health. At that time New Zealand was not letting any Japanese into the country. Aki has to solve the problem of what to do.
These are the bare bones of the book, and there is much more to it. The dense and complicated narrative events are carefully orchestrated. They flash back and forth over a time scheme that corresponds roughly to Aki’s lifetime. Grace’s temporal references are subtle and do not obtrude, but can be tracked down if readers are so inclined. Aki tells us that he left school ‘the day I turned twelve – that was in August 1925’. So he was born in 1913. He was 10 when Moonface was born and 71 when he met Daniel. To have this structure in place helps to keep track of the events, which are not told in chronological order and are set in different countries. Grace’s representation tends toward either the creation of atmosphere or the emotional or psychological reactions of her characters, rather than a simple account of bare facts.
The book offers a great cultural mix: Daniel is the offspring of a Danish father and a Japanese–Māori mother, and one of Grace’s themes is the acceptance of cultural differences. But her main themes are disappearance and loss, love and belonging, as well as the craft of storytelling. After his wife dies, Aki comes back to Aotearoa where he is able to look after ancestral land and tell Daniel his story. In the final pages Daniel and Oriwia talk about their plans, revealing that the end is not the end, but another beginning.
SIMONE OETTLI is a writer and literary critic. She has taught English literature at the universities of Auckland, Lausanne and Geneva. She currently lives in Geneva.