Saturday 23 April 2022


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Kurangaituku by Whiti Hereaka  {Reviewed by STELLA}
This absorbing and powerful novel draws on the pūrākau of Hatupatu and the Birdwoman. In the hands of Whiti Hereaka, the story of Kurangaituku is retold, repositioned and empowered — this is a feminist perspective — wahine strong. It’s also an appreciation of storytelling and the power of words, of language to shape us and contain or conversely to free us. Picking up this attractive Huia publication you are immediately struck by Rowan Heap’s artwork on the covers — (front and front, as this is a book you can start at either end and which overlaps in its telling in the middle) — claw and hand — beaked and unmasked. It would make little difference where you start (I happened to begin on the dark side) as Hereaka avoids linear construction or strict time constraints, and instead weaves the words and actions of Kurangaituku’s travels through time, the underworld and in the forest in moments that circle each other, intersect and mesmerise as only the best storytelling can. It feels both ancient and relevant, and in this it reminded me of the fascinating yet uncomfortable character Papa Toothwort and the world he inhabits in Max Porter’s Lanny — an entity from some hidden depths, always there, watching, listening and learning. In Rarohenga, the underworld, Hereaka creates a dreamlike poetic landscape which moves between nightmare and bliss. Kurangaituku’s travels here bring her both love (with Hinenuitepo) and the desire to be beautiful. Yet it also instils the lust for revenge. It shows her the undoing of man and her own appetite for power. It’s a compelling world to witness through Kurangaituku’s eyes, through her anger and naivety and her awareness of her otherness. In parts beautiful, in parts gruesome, yet also liberating — a place to walk towards the Void, a letting go. Yet what does this mean for Kurangaituku? A creature who is a bird, a woman, both, neither? Dead, not dead? And where can this lead but back to the beginning again? The world is new, and Kurangaituku is of and by the birds. The forest is her home and the birds are her companions. They are drawn to her and they draw her. This timeless expansive moment is interrupted only by the violent murmurings of the earth. When she comes to, the world has changed and the Song Makers have arrived. She watches them, but she can not communicate — she has no voice. Yet they grow to know of her and make her a new version of herself — the story builds, as stories do, with embellishments that become truths, creating a monstrous birdwoman. She is a story and cannot control her outcome — or can she? And in this world, she meets the young warrior, or trickster, Hatupatu for the first time. Her fascination with him, and his ultimate betrayal, is Kurangaituku’s tragedy. Whiti Hereaka’s novel sits comfortably with other feminist myth retellings (Atwood’s Penelopiad or Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber) which give voice to those poorly served by their traditional tellings, with the bonus that is situated here, in Aotearoa. For a novel which is structurally and thematically complex, Kurangaituku is surprisingly agile and wonderfully alluring.

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