The Thrill Of Fallingby Witi Ihimaera (Vintage, 2012) $37.99, 320 pp.
The role of Māori in the modern world; the challenges of reconciling a culture steeped in mythology and ancient hierarchies with life in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Across his canon, now comprising more than 20 published works, Witi Ihimaera has grappled with the same chief concerns, while always capturing a relevance that reflects the wider national, even global, context in which they were published. The Whale Rider, arguably his most famous work, was written in the age of power suits and it posits that the breaking down of traditional gender roles is essential if Māori culture is to thrive. The collection The New Net Goes Fishing, which has close ties to his latest, explores the ways in which Māori can thrive even while adapting to an urban environment.
The Thrill of Falling, his seventh collection of short stories, is a particular kind of departure. Ihimaera has set stories outside of New Zealand before, certainly, but the central characters’ tend to turn back towards themselves to find resolution. Here, however, neither New Zealand itself nor Māori tradition alone is enough. Published as New Zealand’s economy flounders and the world around it shrinks ever smaller, the characters that populate The Thrill of Falling must look elsewhere — to other countries, other cultures.
Ihimaera sets this up with the opening story, ‘Maggie Dawn’. Here the eponymous character — a sassy, obese young Māori woman (‘calorifically challenged individual’, in her words) — is living with her grandmother, who spends most of her benefit money on the pokies, and is working hard to finish school so that she doesn’t end up like her mother: uneducated, unemployed, drifting from one no-good boyfriend to another and having children with many of them. ‘Maggie Dawn’ takes place on a single Saturday when Maggie, looking after her younger siblings for the day, wakes up determined to have ‘a good day’.
She doesn’t, of course. Maggie has brains, resourcefulness, and spunk galore, the kind of attitude that can blag all the children into a stranger’s wedding in order to get some free lunch while also ensuring that the younger kids pay their respects when they pass a tangi at the local marae. She is, in many ways, a classic Ihimaera character and one who, instinct and experience tells us, will triumph over adversity. But this time, Ihimaera isn’t going to let determination and heart of gold be enough for his character. The reality of modern New Zealand life is coming for Maggie Dawn, and in the face of its heaviest arsenal — gangs, drugs, the high cost of housing, social welfare bureaucrats — she is powerless.
‘Maggie Dawn’ has a stomach-punch of an opener. ‘All in all, being beat up was worth it,’ Maggie thinks towards the end of ‘Maggie Dawn’ — not a sentence likely to be attributed to Kahu Paikea Apirana, or Woman Far Walking’s Tiri O Waitangi Mahana. As the first story in the collection, ‘Maggie Dawn’ sets up one of its core propositions: that perhaps home no longer offers all of the comforts it once did.
This is not to suggest that there is anything didactic or even particularly analogous about the stories that make up The Thrill of Falling. On the contrary, Ihimaera treats us to a collection of wonderful inventiveness, confidently ranging setting and subject manner. The haunting ‘Purity of Ice’ imagines a dystopian future in which erosion of the ozone layer has resulted in much of the earth’s population being eradicated by lethal solar strikes – The Big Burn — and New Zealand’s Deep South has become a major purveyor of the world’s most valuable commodity: water. In ‘Orbis Terrarium’, an elderly woman on her deathbed remembers meeting the giant tortoises of the Galapagos Islands, the oldest living creatures in the world. The collection’s most intriguing and affecting story, ‘One More Night’, is the tale of two Maori girls from rural New Zealand trying to make it big as rock stars in London — but all is not as it seems.
And far from sounding a single refrain, there several themes running through The Thrill of Falling. One of these is literary allusion, Ihimaera displaying an erudition that sits comfortably within the vernacular of his prose. ‘Purity of Ice’ draws heavily on Melville’s Moby Dick; ‘Orbis Terrarium’ was Ihimaera’s contribution to Second Violins, a 2003 collection in which New Zealand authors used first paragraphs from unfinished stories by Katherine Mansfield to write their own works; ‘One More Night’, fascinatingly, is an adaptation of Albert Belz’s play Whero’s New Net, staged by the Massive Theatre Company in 2009, which was itself an adaptation of Ihimaera’s collection The New Net Goes Fishing.There are also repeated character tropes, including aged women of diminishing mental facility and camply lovable gay men. The chatty prose bounces off of the page, and we can forgive Ihimaera the occasional lazy metaphor (‘Tawhi was dressed to kill’; ‘Whero is laughing her head off’) in the face of his masterful handling of characterization and uncanny ear for actual dialogue.
Every character in the volume, from the skinny gay Irishman Dermot in One More Night, to macho, damaged military captain Drake in The Purity of Ice, to We’ll Always Have Paris’s Aunt Lulu, the once glamorous beauty queen slipping steadily into away into dementia, rings absolutely true and is a pleasure to read. (Aunt Lulu is a particular favourite. Take her explanation of her preference for American men: ‘They smell so divine. They have intelligence, but not too much, they’re extremely good in bed, and the best thing is that they love to get up very early and go and play golf in the mornings. A girl must always be left alone in the mornings to freshen up.’)
A younger Aunt Lulu ran off with an American GI, and throughout The Thrill of Falling, Ihimaera sends his characters off to places that lie far from their roots. Saucy old Aunt Lulu departs her disappointing reality — kicked out of her retirement home, moving in with her adult son — for her fantasy of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Whero of ‘One More Night’ has run away from her home and her past to London; it is there that she comes to understand that she can survive only by abandoning the thing that has always given her the most comfort and by rejecting her father’s dark legacy. Of those that populate ‘Purity of Ice’, we are told that ‘orphaned, they had chosen to hide behind new identities, had taken up new names, the more fanciful the better — anything to escape the memories of the world before.’ For them the end can be only, at best, bittersweet.
Indeed, up until this point Ihimaera’s characters have all been forced into a substantial compromise, to give up a significant part of themselves, in order to find their resolutions. Only in the eponymous final story, which takes in Captain Cook’s voyage to Tahiti, the rural-urban divide of 1980s New Zealand and modern-day Marseilles, does he allow the protagonist a truly happy ending.
In ‘The Thrill of Falling’ we meet Tupaea (‘Little Tu’), who is saddled at birth with a name that never should have been his, and destined to be raised thus at the knee of his Koro listening to the story of the first Tupaea, and to struggle under the burden of his legacy. He is, once again, classic Ihimaera at work, and like many an Ihimaera character before him, Little Tu will find his way in the world by embracing his Maori heritage and weaving it into the tapestry of his modern life. But he won’t do this in New Zealand: Little Tu’s journey takes him to the other side of the world, and to a life where he is at his most free dangling above the earth. In the end, the thrill of falling is the joy of pure being — sure of the past, aware of the future, guided by both, driven by neither.
EMILY BRAUNSTEIN BROOKES is a graduate of Victoria University of Wellington and a former editor of Salient. Her reviews have appeared in the Dominion Post, the Listener and the Times Literary Supplement. She currently lives and works in Paris.
Larchan Kestrel says
This is a grate bok. I like da part wif da pictures. 11/10 wood recomend.