Attraction by Ruby Porter (Text Publishing, 2019), 288 pp., $37
When I saw Ruby Porter’s debut novel Attraction on the ‘recommended reads’ shelf at Unity, and browsed the blurb on the back, it appealed immediately. The idea of a plot based around three women who may be friends, lovers, or a bit of both, and are trying to figure that out, has the potential for the kind of sticky emotional writing that I’m always seeking out. But set and setting are everything; when I finally got around to the reading the book, the protests over the stolen land at Ihumātao had become a national news item, I’d flown home to Gisborne to say goodbye to my dying uncle, Jacinda had announced that New Zealand history would be taught in all New Zealand schools, and I was deep into a year-long te reo course.
These things are important because, for me, this is a novel of ideas more than it is a novel of feelings. In much the same way that John Mulgan’s Man Alone examined contemporary New Zealand politics, our relationship with the land and its central character’s ability to make a place for himself in the world, so does Attraction. But, eighty years later, it feels as though this novel, and its unnamed protagonist, traverse an entirely different country. The protagonist (I’m tempted to call her Ruby, so much does this feel like the conflation of author/narrator more common in poetry, or, indeed, autobiography), her oldest friend Ashi and her girl-friend/friend Ilana drive from Auckland to Whāngārā in Te Tairāwhiti, to stay at the family bach. The road-trip continues to Levin where the narrator’s grandmother is unwell in a hospice. Porter uses this typical Kiwi ‘summer holiday road-trip’ trope to examine, in ‘woke’ millennial speak, New Zealand’s complicated relationship with the whenua, and with tangata whenua along the way. Moving from an Auckland full of artists and activists, to a small, heavily Māori community on the isolated East Coast – where the narrator is prompted into the realisation that her whiteness ‘is not invisible, not invisibility’ – to small-town, retiree-populated Levin, which has ‘boy racers and a whole lot of meth’ and ‘not much else’, the reader is propelled through a country, accompanied by a commentary that is both uncomfortable and necessary.
As a Pākehā person who feels deeply uneasy living on stolen land but with no other place to call ‘home’, I found Porter’s tackling of these issues highly resonant. For her, this discomfort is something to sit with and acknowledge, not a simple ‘problem’ that can be ‘fixed’. Very few contemporary New Zealand novels examine our national political blind spots with such a clear eye; for me, this novel joins the ranks of those that are unafraid to pose difficult questions, such as Michalia Arathimos’ Aukati, Rhydian Thomas’ Milk Island and Brannavan Gnanalingam’s Sodden Downstream.
One paragraph, which describes the drive around the coast from Gisborne to Whāngārā, is replete with nostalgia. It accurately describes the sight of a Kiwi camping holiday, while gesturing, through the symbolism of flags, to the loaded politics of place – in particular, our seabed and foreshore.
Campsites sprawl along the bays between Whāngārā and Gisborne. If Helen was here she’d say Pouawa, or Okitu, or Wainui. But they all look the same to me. Parked vans, tarpaulins on a lean, tents pitched between trees. Flags flying. The most common is Tino Rangatiratanga, though occasionally there’s a New Zealand flag. It looks almost reactionary in comparison. The Union Jack, that tattoo of colonisation, always crisp on the skin of trembling fabric. There’s a flag for Double Brown, and one for Pepsi, too.
A couple of pages later, Porter builds on this scene by relaying the kind of classic argument that plagues families where politics clash:
What if they stop us from using the beach? Grandma said, as she drew on a cigarette. This was before she quit. Even back then, I knew the beach she meant, and I knew who they were. Lloyd said it was absurd, of course the beach was everyone’s. Helen said nobody would be allowed to say these things if her dad was still alive.
In a microscopic space, Porter captures the argument that occupied Aotearoa in the lead-up to the passing of the Foreshore and Seabed Act of 2004. In case you were in any doubt where the author stands, she goes on to say, ‘The Seabed and Foreshore Bill was the biggest raupatu, the biggest theft, these islands have ever seen.’
Porter uses a fragmented style of storytelling: conventional chapters are divided into shorter sections and separated by a small plus sign, and some of the sections are very short –a paragraph, a couple of sentences even. Repeated throughout is the mantra, ‘Every time you remember something you’re only remembering the last time you thought of it.’ Rather than fracturing the flow of the novel, this gives the sense of accrual, each fragment an addition to what we know about the characters, dipping in and out of past and present, of memory and the dawning realisation of a dark family history which the narrator almost can’t bear to acknowledge. As the narrator confronts the fact that her ancestor fought against Te Kooti in the New Zealand wars, and that the money he was awarded for his service was used to buy the beloved family bach in Whāngārā, so too is the reader asked to examine their own place in Aotearoa’s colonial history.
This isn’t a one-dimensional, backward-looking novel, though. If Porter shows us that the past is complicated, messy and often unpleasant, and the legacy difficult to live with, she shows us these things with an artist’s eye for beauty. The narrator is a painter, and her observations reflect this. A reverence for the landscape, as well as an interest in the grimy ways it has been corrupted, is obvious in lines such as, ‘The moon is murky, just a toothpaste stain on the sky’, or ‘The best time to go swimming is when dusk starts to curl in, to settle. At this hour, the sea is a womb.’ The luxuriance in physical description contrasts noticeably with the laconic tone employed by the narrator in her conversations with other characters. This textural variation is intriguing. It raises questions about public versus private identity, and it enriches and complicates the novel’s interest in the power and shortcomings of language.
And what about the sticky emotional examination of the ways the three main characters work out their relationship/s? Personally I was grateful for the moments where we moved outside the narrator’s head, but I found the relationships between the three main characters less interesting than those between the narrator and the secondary cast: her two mums, Chris and Helen, her ex-boyfriend Nick, her dead grandfather, and her Māori teacher and friend Pita. For me, these relationships keep the novel tethered to the real world and prevent it from becoming overly simplistic. They enable the novel to expand on themes around sexuality, monogamy, physical and mental health, poverty and the class system in New Zealand, memory and language.
It’s hardly ground-breaking to write fiction about Aotearoa that is imbued with political commentary. Certainly Patricia Grace, Witi Ihimaera and many other fine Māori writers have published deeply political fiction. It’s refreshing, though, to see a young Pākehā woman take up the cause, especially when it is often seen as a touchy subject best steered clear of. This is a book that acknowledges that there is now a generation of young Pākehā people who want to actively work to address the wrongs done by their ancestors, rather than ignore them, and who want to actively engage with Te Ao Māori, rather than live in a small British outpost. To see Porter publishing work like this as her debut novel, and the fact that a non-New Zealand publisher was happy to work with her extensive use of te reo, fills me with hope and excitement for what might come next.
HANNAH METTNER is a Wellington-based poet from Gisborne. Her first collection, Fully Clothed and So Forgetful, was published by Victoria University Press in 2017, longlisted for the 2018 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards, and won the Jessie Mackay award for Best First Book of Poetry in 2018. She is co-editor with Morgan Bach and Sugar Magnolia Wilson of Sweet Mammalian, an online poetry journal launched in 2014.