Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 30, 2011

Hokitika Town (2006), by Charlotte Randall

Hokitika Town

Charlotte Randall (Source: Penguin NZ)

Charlotte Randall is a New Zealand author not afraid to take risks.  Hokitika Town, her sixth novel, is written in a narrative voice that takes a bit of getting used to, a pidgin language  that demands reader concentration.  Here’s how the story begins:

I never seen nothing like this.  Papa say whitey do things different from us, but he dint say how.  Now I see it with my own eyes.  Whitey’s ships is so big they choking up the river.  Them ships got poles big as kauri trees and the poles got cloaks hanging off them. Mebee no one believe that back home, but I swear – whitey’s ships wear clothings.  But I keep  forgetting, I not live at home no more.  I live in whitey town now.

Rilly I live in the bush.  I not ezactly moved into the town yet.  I kind of creep around. My tuakana tell me if you do what whitey say, he give you coin.

Halfie is a homeless child growing up between two cultures.  Somehow he has been separated from his people and is living on the fringe of a bustling gold rush town in 1865.  He wishes he’d paid attention when Mama was showing him which berries were safe to eat.  He finds the muddle of languages around him a bit bewildering – but he’s been befriended by Violet, a teenage barmaid, and with her help he’s learning English and its spellings, and getting occasional work at the pub.  He’s also learning to negotiate the strange world of adults and their inexplicable preoccupations.

In the chaos of hasty development and a shanty town which exists mainly to serve the drinking needs of the miners, Halfie also enjoys the somewhat eccentric protection of Ludovic, an alcoholic bible-basher, and Kaspar, an existentialist philosopher. Sleeping under trees, in caves, in a hut with Ludo and occasionally on ‘cloud beds’ at the pub, Halfie soon earns a collection of other monikers: Harvey, Thumbsucker, Bedwetter, Cocoa and Pipsqueak – but he has another name and his coming-of-age is marked by the moment when he remembers what it is, and chooses to use it.

For despite a series of disasters both comic and tragic in this engaging novel, there is never any doubt that Halfie is going to survive, even when he runs across the criminal underbelly of the town.  He is a clever little boy with amazing initiative.  He makes many mistakes as he struggles to interpret life as he sees it – at the bottom of a grasping, amoral society – but although he’s  ‘melon cow lick’  sometimes, he’s indefatigable.  He’s funny, he’s courageous, and he has a kind heart.    

Great characterisation lies at the heart of this novel.  Brusque, busy, kind-hearted Violet has problems of her own; Ludovic has a somewhat ‘pliable’ personal history and a ‘fancy top coat that he say were made for him by tailors in California when he were rich as Croesus’ (p111); and Kaspar’s in search of love as well as that elusive gold nugget.  Caradoc, the ambitious owner of the Bathsheba pub, shares an eye for the same girl as his son does, an indiscretion which has to be concealed not only from his perpetually weeping wife, Gertie, who lives upstairs in her room on quack medicines and the fish that Halfie catches for her  – but also from Griffith’s respectable fiance, the gorgeous Lily Moncrieff.  There are petty crims, and then there is One Eye, with his frightening disregard for human life, and the sinister Otac.  There are dancing girls, shady characters and a little girl who is lucky to escape the predatory attentions of a lonely man…

Paula Green reviewed this book for the NZ Herald and Maggie Rainey-Smith guest blogged it at Beattie’s Book Blog.  You can read an extract at Penguin NZ (scroll down to the orange link at the bottom of the page).

Author: Charlotte Randall
Title: Hokitika Town
Publisher: Penguin (New Zealand) 2011
ISBN: 9780143563390
Source: Review copy courtesy Penguin NZ

Availability: at Fishpond Hokitika Town


  1. Must say I haven’t heard of her despite her 6 books, but then I’m not well up on NZ literature (which is a shame really but how can one keep up!). Sounds as though she’s got the voice down well so that it’s pretty easy to read despite its unfamiliarity (which I also found with Carey’s True history of the Kelly Gang). In other words, I liked the rhythm of the language in the excerpt you provided.


    • I admire writers who experiment with different styles. It would be so tempting, if you’ve been successful, to churn out similar novels but like Lloyd Jones, Randall apparently likes to ‘play’ with interesting ideas. I’m going to see if I can hunt out some more of her work.


  2. Just passing through as i saw this blog on The Man Booker blog. Must say I haven’t heard of her but her style certainly looks interesting. Her voice seems very settled so i may give her a look, nice blog. If you get chance to take a look I have started my own literature blog


    • Hello, and welcome to ANZ Litlovers – it’s lways nice to meet a new blogger and I’m delighted to have introduced you to a new author!


  3. I’ll have to get this book as one of the men in my family left Hobart and went to Hokitika about this time.


    • Don’t laugh, I didn’t realise that Hokitika was a real place at first. I really must take a trip to NZ and get to know it better!


  4. Isn’t she fantastic? FYI she (or someone else) seems to have created a facebook page for her: It’s a bit thin on the ground in terms of info at the moment but hopefully there’ll be some decent stuff soon. She’s so ridiculously talented and prolific and deserves a much bigger audience, IMO.


    • Hello Elaine, nice to meet you and welcome to chatting about books and authors on ANZ LitLovers.
      As you’ve probably noticed I do an occasional series about Aussie authors called Meet an Aussie Author and I would dearly love to do the same for Kiwi authors, but of course it depends on (a) publishers passing on my requests and (b) authors having time to contribute. I would love to start off with Charlotte Randall!


  5. […] Victoria University Press and Granta. It is a book set in the goldfields of Hokitika in 1866 (like Hokitika Town by Charlotte Randall) and this is how Claire Armitstead argued that it should be the […]


  6. […] admire New Zealand author Charlotte Randall’s writing: I was entranced by Hokitika Town (see my review) and wanted to read more of her work so I tracked down The Crocus Hour (2008) via interlibrary […]


  7. […] PS Don’t miss Randall’s earlier novel Hokitika Town – see my enthusiastic review here. […]


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