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herpetfrog

herpetfrog

Guardian of the Dead - Karen Healey If you don't live in a very small, part of the world that - on the whole - consumes mass culture rather than produces it, you have no idea the pleasure of simply reading a book that speaks with your own accent. That uses local words for local things. That knows what it's like getting out of bed every day in this place.

Guardian of the Dead is not without flaws but I would be lying if I said I didn't enjoy it.

Things i didn't like:
1. Kevin's name bothered me. I've been around for some time now and the last Kevin I met was the father of a friend of mine in high school, some twenty odd years ago. This is not a name that is common among 18 year olds in New Zealand. It jarred every time I read it and yanked me out of the story.
2. From a post-colonial perspective, this novel is problematic.
While the author was quite happy to appropriate things Maori to do the heavy lifting, Maori characters were a) few and far between, b) amusing sidekicks with stereotypical speech patterns, c) entirely one dimensional and d) used as token colour and not involved in moving the plot forward in any meaningful way. The fact that an adolescent Pakeha girl negotiates this incredibly complex mythology and saves the day without any significant contribution from anyone who is, you know, Maori is actually really insulting. Both Mark and Kevin invoke a very paternalistic 19th century view of Maori as needing the loving guidance of wise, educated white folks to protect them from their own choices.
3. The use of the mythology feels quite academic, like the author did a lot of research, knows a lot of stuff but doesn't feel it. The stories of Ranginui and Papatuanuku, as well as Maui Potiki are thorough but told quite mechanically. To me it felt like there was plenty of mahi and not enough mauri.

Things I liked:
1. Reka. Aside from the disappointing abdication of power later in the book, this woman kicks ass and takes names. She is what she is and she's proud of her heritage. You want chemistry? Reka has it in spades.
2. Standing in line behind the elderly couple deciding between Belgium biscuits and custard squares. You might need to be a NZer to appreciate how gorgeous this image is.
3. The moral ambiguity of Sand. This is a man who covers his own ass and survives, no matter what it takes. You have to admire that.

Things that were interesting
1. Reading about Christchuch pre-earthquake. This kind of messed with my head. I realised I now contextualise an entire city based on one event. Literature will now forever be divided into pre and post and I can't work out if that's a good thing or a bad thing. It has certainly dated this novel quite abruptly.

Overall:
The fact that this is local is both its highest point and its lowest for me. High expectations lead to bigger falls, but never underestimate the simple joy of looking into a book and seeing oneself reflected. It is an interesting story that takes a lot of risks. It is not always successful but the action cracks on at a good pace and the characters, while predictable and not entirely memorable, are at the very least internally consistent. It is a novel I will recommend to my 14 year old daughter (Kai Tahu, Kati Mamoe) and I look forward to the discussions that follow.