A Runner’s Guide to Rakiura: A novel by Jessica Howland Kany (Quentin Wilson Publishing 2022), 413pp, $37.50
According to my spreadsheet, this is the one-hundredth arotake pukapuka (book review) I’ve written since I began about a decade ago, with a roughly even split between local and foreign pukapuka. It’s got me thinking about the ‘New Zealandness’ of writing, and this pakimaero (novel) is an excellent test case for trying to work out what I think that is, and isn’t.
A Runner’s Guide to Rakiura: A novel is published by Quentin Wilson Publishing, a small whare perehi (publishing house) based in Ōtautahi Christchurch. The novel is written mostly in third-person narration, interspersed with newspaper columns, text exchanges, exams, and so on, and occasional images of buoys with writing on them. It’s a treasure-hunt mystery novel with clues aplenty—and they’re capital-C Clues, physical things for the characters to pick up and discover, like a literary escape room. It scratched an itch I wasn’t aware I had for the joy of being on a Mission, racing around finding Clues and being Clever and having Epiphanies that could lead to actual Buried Treasure where X Marks the Spot. It’s wonderfully absorbing, and when I was interrupted while reading the tense digging-up-maybe-treasure scene, I actually howled in frustration.
A Runner’s Guide to Rakiura is written by US immigrant Jessica Howland Kany. Kany has worked for many years as a journalist and this is her first novel. Like many first novels, it feels strongly autobiographical, and in fact, my first recommendation is not to read the author bio because it is essentially spoilers for the protagonist, Maudie. Maudie is a US immigrant who comes to Rakiura Stewart Island to write the titular guidebook. However, she quickly loses focus on this project in favour of investigating the mystery of rumoured treasure buried somewhere on the island.
A Runner’s Guide to Rakiura has an unmistakable sense of arrival from over the sea. Scattered throughout the pakimaero are columns from the Stewart Island News (the newspaper Kany edited for many years) called ‘Flotsam and Jetsam’. Maudie herself has washed up on shore, bringing her history and cultural influences with her. A Runner’s Guide to Rakiura is billed by the publisher as ‘Moby Dick meets Treasure Island in the 21st century’, and those US and UK literary groundings are very clear. And it isn’t just the immigrants—characters within the pukapuka who grew up on Rakiura learn poems by Yeats by heart, for example.
Moby Dick especially is a favourite of Kany’s—she has even named one of her children Moby. One character in A Runner’s Guide to Rakiura exclaims: ‘nobody’s written a Kiwi Moby Dick. Why not? We’ve got time! We’ve got ink!’ But also—why would we? When I look again at my arotake pukapuka spreadsheet, I realise I’ve become used to reading local pukapuka that are in kōrero with one another in a way I’d taken for granted until I looked for it here and didn’t find it. Despite the puff quote from Patrick Evans on the cover comparing Kany to Maurice Shadbolt, there is a notable absence of allusions to New Zealand literature in this novel.
In fact, there’s a notable absence of New Zealand. The picture of life on Rakiura that Kany gives us is one of a community apart, with a culture and mores completely unto itself, described by one islander in the book as ‘a collective knowledge of things’. Kany has lived there for a couple of decades and so I trust her judgement, especially as I have never visited. Characters appear to have little contact with the mainland, and visitors from elsewhere in New Zealand or a foreign country are treated about the same. There’s a lot of talk of ‘southernmost’ things, but as Vil, one of the main characters says: ‘I get it seems far to you, but to us, Stewart Island isn’t far, it’s here. It’s our home.’
Speaking of home—it wasn’t clear to me where tangata whenua fit into this pakimaero. I think Vil and his whānau were perhaps meant to be Māori, but if so, I’m not sure which iwi they belong to. There are a few kupu Māori scattered throughout the book and a couple of the clues depend on a bit of te reo knowledge. Overall, there’s a real colonial vibe of white people arriving and never questioning their right to land and life here, combined with a refusal to engage with any events more than a couple of generations back. At one point, Maudie takes steps to extend her visa and views this as an annoyance getting in the way of her assumed right to residency. She has the same problem as many Pākehā, an arrogance based on insecurity and ignorance of her own whakapapa and culture: ‘She wishes she knew a karakia, a psalm, anything appropriate for this moment. She wishes she wasn’t a rootless culture-blank mutt. Where is she from? Who are her people? Where are they from? A mish-mosh of places and faces.’
As I considered my response to A Runner’s Guide to Rakiura, I found myself mentally shelving it somewhere between Laurence Fearnley’s Scented (published locally) and Kate Sawyer’s The Stranding (published overseas), both of which are about white women who come from overseas to make Aotearoa New Zealand their home. Fearnley’s protagonist eventually comes to grips with her identity as a member of a colonising race, realising that she doesn’t have the right to just barge into any part of the culture she might like. Sawyer, on the other hand, is stuck in the British view of New Zealand as a cute backup plan for the UK to resort to if necessary, as though the whole of Aotearoa is just a flattering filter for Britain to put on their Instagram.
I realise it might sound like I don’t recommend reading A Runner’s Guide to Rakiura, but I do. On a sentence-to-sentence level, it’s a real joy, and Kany has an undoubted talent for dialogue. One particularly cantankerous character’s speech often reaches almost Shakespearean proportions: ‘[He] is a cheeky bastard who rides my last nerve like a mongrelly scabies-plagued horse from sciatic hell.’ And here’s a typical exchange between Maudie and Vil:
‘Gutted as what?’
‘Just gutted as. It’s what we say here.
‘Okay, but could you just complete the simile as a favour to me?’
‘Gutted as Braveheart.’
Kany has an obvious delight in language that is clever and lively without ever being pompous or self-congratulatory. Maudie keeps a notebook that it’s easy to imagine Kany having kept, translating US English into NZ English, and sometimes this is incorporated into the text:
She thumps along the
trail = track through the
forest = woods = bush and in the low-hanging branch of a
mānuka = kahikātoa = tea tree she sees a
tūī = parson bird singing.
Kany also uses some wonderful words that were new to me—possibly neologisms of her own, such as when Maudie is out running and feels the ‘rasple of sand devils around her legs’. (In our household, we say rasple as well but use it to mean raspberry.)
As a kaituhi whaikaha (disabled writer), I’m always pleased to encounter disabled characters, especially when those characters are neither cured nor killed off, as is too often the case. Maudie has prosthetic toes, and the dry librarian (that is, the librarian of the whare pukapuka (library) on land, as opposed to the one on a boat) uses a wheelchair. And if Kany does fall into the slightly simplistic trap of making the bad characters ableist and the good characters totally not ableist—even leaping heroically to challenge said ableism—then this is a kind of warm-hearted wish-fulfilment that I’m very willing to indulge.
At 400-odd pages, A Runner’s Guide to Rakiura is a bit long and does drag slightly in the middle. I recommend stopping reading at the end of part four, which finishes at a point I found narratively satisfying. The rest of the pukapuka is devoted to tying up every single loose end and doling out conventional happy endings in a way I found irritatingly pat. Instead, skip straight to the acknowledgements, which, after the usual listing of names, turns into a very touching love letter to Kany’s kaiwhakatika (editor), Stephen Stratford, who died in 2021 and who Kany calls the book’s ‘main buoy’.
Stratford was also a book reviewer and I wondered what he thought of the inclusion, in part six, of an arotake pukapuka of a book written by one of the characters in the novel. This kind of thing always makes me nervous, as though the author is trying to pre-emptively defend against anything I might say. In this case, the review is overwhelmingly positive, even going so far as to shout in all caps, ‘THIS BOOK IS A GEM’. A bit on the nose, eh? Still, I could do worse than to end my own arotake pukapuka by agreeing with Kany’s fictitious reviewer: ‘[the author] has written a brilliant piece of promotional literature for [their] home. I doubt I’m the only … fan planning a journey to the bottom of New Zealand to a place called Stewart Island/Rakiura.’
ELIZABETH HERITAGE My ancestors came from England. We are tangata tiriti. I was born in Tāmaki Makaurau in the shadow of Ōwairaka, in the rohe of Ngāti Whātua. I now live in Te Whanganui-a-Tara in the rohe of Te Āti Awa. I hold a first-class honours degree in English and History from the University of Otago Te Whare Wānanga o Ōtākou.