Elizabeth Knox, Dreamquake
The second book in what is, for me, an intensely problematic duology. When I read the first book I wondered if I’d missed something, especially when I went hunting for reviews and none of them mentioned what I’d found – a massive, unbelievable hole at the heart of the book. Baffled, I put it aside, and hoped that the sequel – when it came out – would explain everything.
So. Both Dreamhunter books are set in an alternate version of New Zealand/Aotearoa, in the early 1900s; a version that is missing its North Island, but keeps all the rest of its geography, with a map on the frontispiece that is quite clearly the top of the South Island, where Nelson (the original capital) becomes Founderston, where the settlers arrived a few generations back, and Farewell Spit is So Long Spit, and Westport hasn’t even been renamed. Each corner of the map has a cameo inset with a different native creature: a tuatara, a kaka, a kiwi, and a fish (my species identification skills are not that good). But only the fish could be named in this book – because the other names are all Maori, the language (and the name) of the first settlers of Aotearoa – later called New Zealand. And, in Knox’s series, there are no Maori.
In my version of New Zealand/Aotearoa, Maori arrived somewhere around a thousand years ago. In my 1900, the Maori population had dropped dramatically as a result of European settlement and the land wars (from 100 000 in 1840 – when Te Tiriti o Waitangi/the Treaty of Waitangi was signed – to about 35 000), with most of their land also gone, and there was a tendency on behalf of the settlers to assume, or hope, that Maori were on their way out – a dying race. But at the same time a group of Maori were making their way into politics – Sir Apirana Ngata, Te Rangi Hiroa (Peter Buck), James Carroll (who made it to Acting Prime Minister) – and encouraging the preservation and revival of Maori culture and tradition, a process that - with varying difficulties - has continued to this day. In the 2006 Census 565 329 people identified as Maori (for the purposes of the Census, as with the electoral roll, cultural identification rather than blood is used to determine ethnicity, and people can identify with more than one group), or about 15% of the population.
There is no doubt that colonialism in New Zealand could be just as appalling, at times, as the colonial experience anywhere else. What the European settlers did not, however, ever manage to do was what Knox has done, which is to erase Maori existence completely. And what it does is change her whole world, so that her New Zealand – which is not also Aotearoa – is also not mine.
Names are important in these books – the sand-creature Laura creates is given his identity (and his freedom) by the name she inscribes on him. Laura’s family have an exotic past, descended from Lazarus, protecting his bones, they have strange knowledge and a sense of privilege. And the world in Knox’s series distorts itself around them, the landscape bending to their whim, and reading it makes me sea-sick. So much of what I love about my own country has been erased. In her landscapes there is fennel and dock, but no piripiri or kawakawa; plane trees and black firs, but no rimu or ngaio; riflemen and gannets, but no pukeko or kereru; cabbage trees, but no nikau, potatoes but no kumara; parson birds rather than tui; black-furred fern roots instead of punga; cicadas, but no weta; gorse on the hillsides but no pohutukawa along the coastline. You can’t take a whole people out of a land without changing that land, without changing the language. A series so concerned with names cannot have failed to notice this.
I find it really hard to assess the book separate from this issue. The characters are a little too special, and a little too distanced; on the other hand, the imagery is vivid and sensual, leaving the reader with a collection of brilliant impressions; waking up in the heart of a camera obscura, being cradled by arms made of sand, wasp-hollowed apricots hanging, ripe and hollow, on a tree; the shudder of the land under your feet in an earthquake. An incomplete land.
I don’t know why Knox did this. Maori landed in the South Island/Te Wai Pounamu in my world (possibly even before they did in the North/Te Ika a Maui) – why not in hers? I did find a reviewer prepared to mention it this time around – Jolisa Gracewood in The Listener notes that “there is no category for indigeneity in Knox’s “Southland”. But perhaps this allows for a subversive piece of Pakeha [nonMaori New Zealander] myth-making, one that invites us to think anew about the claims that our hearts make on the land and vice versa.” I find this irritatingly weaselish – why not say “Maori” rather than “indigeneity”, for a start – and unhelpful. How are Maori supposed to read this book? A number of other reviews have mistakenly put the book in Australia (and I note that “the Place” is apparently based on a chunk of the Australian outback, which really makes me more uneasy about appropriation rather than less). I am also waiting for the opinion of a friend of mine who is not only Maori but madly fond of alternate history – and no, before anyone asks, I do think this sort of alternate history decision is much worse than an alternate history in which the European settlers did not come to Aotearoa. But if you've read one, I'd appreciate the recommendation
In addition, she’s put Dr Michael King in her book, as a historian who wrote A History of Southland. In my world, Dr Michael King wrote the Penguin History of New Zealand – and a number of other excellent books about Maori and Pakeha history, and identity. He died in a car crash in 2004, and is sadly missed.
I know that some of my reaction to this book is coloured by my current homesickness (and being stuck in the wrong country), in that the only thing in that situation worse than not being home is being given a home that should be familiar but is instead wrong, in so many terrifyingly unsettling ways. My home has many flaws, but this should not be one of them.