The Graphologist’s Apprentice, by Whiti Hereaka (Huia Press, 2010) 260 pp., $25.
The first novel by Whiti Hereaka, increasingly known within Aotearoa-New Zealand as a fine playwright, is well-written with some very clever imagery, especially in the form of extended metaphors, and more especially puns, as for example:
A tap at the window disturbs Mae’s train of thought…Hanging onto the carriage window, stretched and straining against the speed of the train, is a ghost.
She likes to think of herself as a sentence constructed by a pen that barely touched the paper: a ghost in ink.
All those years creating an island for herself, and this is what happens. Mae goes and builds a bridge, without resource consent.
Raine, reign . . . And then it begins to rain.
The train ride home is prose written by a dullard: each minute is deliberate and laborious.
The entire book is framed around the lost craft of graphology, and is one sustained metaphor as to how one’s signature can reveal considerable detail about oneself. As a work of fiction it’s actually meta-fiction: writing about writing — or a fiction creating fiction. As January says towards the narrative’s end, about her made-up tale for the small daughter of Mae’s caregiver:
We’re in the middle of the story… January leaves Jasmine… trying desperately to see the fiction around her.
The Graphologist’s Apprentice, I suggest, also reveals a fair bit about its author. Not, as Barthes would have us, as already-written, but in the process of writing herself.
However, while I can accept the characterization of the neurotic, obsessive delusional and perhaps even psychotic, January and even her somewhat odd off-key relationship with the elderly hand-writing expert Mae Raine (you will have picked up on the calendar months already, eh), I struggle a bit with the plot, particularly as the ‘storyline’ nears its end, where I had to suspend belief when January went to Mae’s country home after earlier burning the old graphologist’s formative and precious journal, and was not only let in, but invited to stay there also — as a non-paying guest — and subsequently made some sort of rather arbitrary rapprochement with her mentor. All a bit too tidy and not entirely convincing to my querulous mind.
It’s almost as if Hereaka was struggling to somehow resolve, to finish this novel… contrivedis the adjective that leaps up here, and this selfsame word also springs in right at the closing loops of the pen, otherwise known as the finale, when Alice lets January, the eczema-scarred weirdo, into her house for yet another chance at self-redemption, after a sequence of earlier betrayals of her new boss and loyal ex-workmate: namely Alice The Good.
Yet, up until these closing stages, it is an impelling read; it does draw in a reader and maintains a steady pace, given that one fairly soon sees January as quite a ‘bit of a nutter’, who has invented a (very sexual) relationship with a married man and plays out various scenarios — some purely fictitious, some ‘actual’ — with both him and his totally and equally unsuspecting wife, Olivia. Indeed, January is not actually a very nice person whatsoever — very self-centred, incapable of empathy, manipulative and cunning, continually myth-making, always irredeemably late to whatever her job is, and an outright liar at times. One wonders why the astute kuiaMae can even be bothered to continue having any form of relationship with her! January is a bitch, actually, with a plethora of catty comments and observations (ironically often about cats) sprinkled over many pages, given that Hereaka sometimes changes the stance of the main two actors and we see things through the eyes of Mae and Alice at times too.
And there is one other thing that fascinates me with regard to this novel: it’s almost total lack of conveyance of anything Māori whatsoever, given that it is published by a Māori publishing house, and is well-written, much of the time, by a Māori wahine with talent to burn, with iwi ties to Ngāti Tuwharetoa and Te Arawa.
Yet no character is obviously Māori. No locale is obviously Māori. No reo is Māori with the exception of a mention of Matariki on page 20 and the single word taihoa on page 228. Potboiling of crays and the burying of a pseudo-placenta under a tree are ghostwritten in as small details here and there too, but these are scarcely full-on Māori images. January might pass as Māori with her green eyes and olive skin, but more likely candidates are Mae (with her predilection of sensing and corresponding with ngā kehua, and her rustic home village where she goes more and more frequently as the action is written up), and even more obviously, Cheryl the archetypal caregiver with oodles of selfless hospitality, who inherits Mae’s rural abode at the end.
Does this lack of ngā mea Māori matter? No, not really I guess, but it is somewhat puzzling as to why the author chooses to ignore completely her own heritage.
All of which leads to a slightly odd book overall: two rather stilted and somewhat underdeveloped characters in a definite New Zealand/ qua very Wellington setting (so much detailing of places such as the Bolton Street cemetery, The Terrace, Parliament Buildings, and so on) amidst much hand-wringing about handwriting. We never actually get much of a physical description of either of these two characters: they are more states of mind than anything else.
I find myself struggling to agree with Joan Rosier-Jones’ opinion in New Zealand Books that the tale is totally believable. Part of the reason for this may be my gender: males are not important in this novel and indeed are cast as negative influences throughout. Ted, Alice’s forerunner as boss, is easily dispatched; the married man’s less-than-heroic physical stature is revealed at the end; the careless flatmate of January is depicted as an arsehole. The Graphologists Apprenticeis a novel written for women and intricately describes the intricacies of their special relationships. Fair enough too, I say. (As a further aside here, it is interesting that amazon.com designates the book as ‘Romance; Contemporary Women’s Fiction’… more gender bias, perhaps?)
So, what are we to make of The Graphologist’s Apprentice?
Enjoyable? Not really, as the chief protagonist is not a particularly nice person at any time, and her selfishness precludes the reader from feeling any empathy with her. To me, despite what Whiti Hereaka says on her own blogspot about her own novel, it’s not really ‘about’ friendship either. Mae and January are never bosom friends, nor ever surrogate mother-daughter. I continue to feel that their relationship never quite works; neither is sufficiently developed and cogent. Both have needs, but this reader can’t quite see what Mae, the sane one, gets out of their affair, other than some sort of satisfaction from the passing on of her craft. It is almost as if they are stock characters. Again, this may well be my own obtuseness coming into the play here.
Cleverly written? In the main, most definitely. Hereaka is a skillful and astute novelist with a good grasp of language and very adept at telling imagery. There is momentum and some character conflict and friction and one wants to see what will happen next: the mark of a successful book.
What, then, is the genre? It’s a real admixture actually. Elements of the very romance novel el cheapo pulp that January reads and bases her own purely fictitious letters to herself ‘from’ her supposed lover, abound. There is also some glancing at mystery, when January hints at her ‘affair’ and follows this up with her eccentric behavior at her supposed lover’s home; and indeed there is oddness elsewhere (as in Mae’s rustic cottage somehow still as extant slap bang in the middle of a built- up Wellington), in the sense of the reader is never quite sure what January might do next and just how crazy she essentially is.
There is very little comic relief, for this graphological tome is rather grim and somewhat sarcastic throughout, with smudges of caustic riposte and nasty put-downs, such as those of A1 and A2, the anemic Pākeha secretaries, while tragedy is not an issue here at all. Again, I can’t quite concur with Renee’s cover blurb here: Wonderfully enjoyable, imaginative, moving and funny… and am more in agreement with Lawrence Jones’ comment in the Otago Daily Timesthat: The last part of the novel feels more like a well-made play, where all is resolved, than like a novel depicting human complexity and contradiction from within.
My overall response to my own earlier question is to categorise the novel as a serious attempt to draw us into a psychological thriller. Here is a very strange individual with a whole raft of personality disorders and personal baggage: let’s see her unwind herself and wind-up others. Let’s see the collateral damage she incites by her wayward actions, and let us see if there is to be any healing, any resolution.
I am a fan of the theory of Existential Literary Criticism, as first extrapolated at length by the writer Colin Wilson many years ago, whereby a book is assessed by what it contributes to the art of living more authentically, by its casting light on the existential dilemmas that abound around us: why are we here, and what do we do about it?
Does January then make a progression from being a totally inauthentic home invader and rather pathetic thief (she steals on more than one occasion: lavish earrings from the selfsame store Olivia is shopping in, and a coat from Olivia’s husband) to a slightly more well-rounded and humble individual? Perhaps, but we are not left with any conclusive stance. She may well still be the muddled-as-to-her-own-identity (she had changed her name long ago) life-denying klutz she has always seemed to be. I’m not too sure the author is giving us any definitive existential theme here at all actually, even given the main metaphor of graphology as a main access to personality, a via media to self-realization. As Ortega y Gasset wrote, also some time ago: Each woman is the author of herself.
But in the end I believe that this is not ultimately a ‘merely’ disposable romance novel written purely for middle-class ‘entertainment’. January scribbles, scribbles, scribbles throughout, and we are at least left at closure with her believable tears and some insight toward love, friendship, joy. Hereaka is here nudging us toward answering the questions of what one should do with one’s life and how better to impel authenticity. What’s next is recreating oneself as a viable human being; rewriting one’s life script before it becomes irrevocably illegible. Expunging forever the self-inflicted eczema fester, and fronting up with a whole new face.
The book nearly ‘works’ on this Bildungsroman level, but not quite, for the points made earlier. It is, however, a very promising debut novel and I look forward very much to grappling with the second Whiti Hereaka fiction due out very soon. Maybe there will be some Māori in it too, eh. Now that would be fun.
VAUGHAN RAPATAHANA teaches English in Hong Kong. His books include the novel Toa, published by Atuanui Press in 2013.
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