Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 28, 2014

Baby No-eyes, by Patricia Grace

Baby No-eyes, by Patricia Grace, is a disturbing book to read.  I was quite taken aback when I realised the significance of the title, and spent some time thinking about my instinctive emotional response.  It’s not until later in the book that the motivation for what happens is revealed, so it was the act that repelled me, and since I don’t share Maori spiritual beliefs, I was quite unable to rationalise my response.

Yes, I know I’m being mysterious about this, but I want readers to share the experience of discovery as I did.  I don’t want to spoil that for anyone.  I was reading in bed at night, gradually piecing together the family stories that bring this novel together, enjoying the moment when I realised that this one was the mother of that one, and these two were in a gay relationship, and so on.  But I was mystified by Tawara’s constant companion, nagging, needy and tireless in her demands.  I did not understand why he put up with her, and why he felt responsible for trying to keep her contented.

As I say, the moment of discovery came as a shock.  ‘Ohhh’, I said aloud, and my heart gave a little lurch, and I put the book down for a moment or two, to get my breath back.  As is the way with powerful moments in book-reading, I am still reflecting on it, trying to dissect why it had such an impact.  I think it’s one of those moments that will stay with me for some time, because it’s forced me to the admission that I’m not as rational as I think I am!

Anyway, what I will tell you about the book is this.  It’s constructed in chapters narrated by different members of the family.  Family is defined broadly in Maori culture, and in this book it’s inclusive of caring neighbours as well as people with blood ties.  Without labouring the point, the author explains that colonisation disrupted many of the rules that governed marriage and family, but Maori kinship remains distinct in New Zealand.  Its obligations are not the same as for Pakeha (non-indigenous) families.  In some ways it is more supportive, but in other ways it is not.  Perhaps the need to sustain a vulnerable culture makes them more tolerant of violence than others might be.  Domestic abuse is not a major theme in the book, but it’s acknowledged, and the helplessness of the family to deal with it is acknowledged too.

(Family violence is a vexed problem here in Australia as well: people sometimes behave badly when they perceive themselves as victims and a punitive approach is counter-productive.  But not dealing with dysfunctional behaviour perpetuates it.  As with all social problems the contexts are complex and the roads to recovery are expensive and slow.  This makes them vulnerable to budget cuts when the bean-counters are around.)

The most engaging voice in the tapestry of narratives in Baby No-eyes is Tawera’s.  He knows he is loved, but he is often confused, and even in this big complicated family, he seems lonely.   He is an observer who explains much, but because he is a child at the beginning of the story, he doesn’t understand some aspects of his own narrative, and some secrets are withheld by adults who have reasons to withhold them.

In his first appearance in the novel, Tawera tells the story of his own birth, as if he was there.  Well, of course he was, but not like this!

‘A boy,’ they all said at last, as if I didn’t know.

There we were, my mother and me.

Undolled.

Hi-aa.

And there I was, up by my mother’s neck.  She was holding me, laughing and talking.  (Someone else too, pushing in.  Who was that?) Keri and Gran were clipping and snipping, then Gran took me and wrapped me in a towel, while Mum moved onto the settee where Keri cleaned her and made her comfortable.  Mahaki was grinning and talking to me over Gran’s shoulder, Dave was looking at me too, but he was feeling ill and his face had paled to the yellow colour of eggy pancake mix.  He had to go and sit down.  (p. 18)

Tawera knows many things that he could not really know, but he doesn’t know what he needs to know about himself and about the missing members of his family.  And because things are complicated, there is no quick and easy way to explain.  When he demands answers, he has to learn a kind of patience that respects the complexity of his life and culture.

‘All right, Mum,’ I said, ‘tell us about yourself and about this sister of mine who has no eyes.  Stolen?  How come?’

‘She died in an accident,’ Mum said.  ‘If we’re going to tell about the accident we’ll have to tell everything.’

‘We?’

‘Gran Kura and me, and all of us in our different ways.  You too, you’ll have to do your part.  It could take years.’ (p. 19)

The reader has to learn this patience too, but it’s an enjoyable journey.  As in the author’s earlier novel Potiki (see my review) alongside the human story there is a land claim to be dealt with. Mahaki the lawyer has some keen observations to make about the confrontations between young Maori hotheads demanding instant justice and their sadder-but-wiser Elders.  The author doesn’t labour the point – this is not a ‘misery memoir’ in disguise, but Gran Kura and others of their generation learned the hard way to keep under the radar.  Schooling for them meant denying their Maori language and culture, but it didn’t bring them equity and justice.  Mahaki knows that the rights of a minority group are subject as much to public opinion as they are to the courts.  The strategists in the community are more likely to get what they want if they appeal to popular sentiment, and they do this by setting up a kind of ‘tent embassy’ with music and food.  Grace skewers the attention span of the public with disarming accuracy – I bet if she wrote this novel today she’d use those ephemeral social media campaigns that litter Facebook and Twitter, promising that a lazy act of adding a signature will make a difference and show that you care – for the millisecond it takes you to do it.  Michelle Obama on Twitter for #BringBackOurGirls and Change petitions? Oh, that was last month, I see from the date of the last signature…

I digress.  Some readers may find the narrative disjointed, but if you enjoy piecing a story together from a variety of engaging voices, Baby No-eyes is a fascinating novel that raises confronting issues.  It was apparently based on real-life events that took place in a Kiwi hospital but it’s made no difference to my enjoyment of the book that I don’t know anything about these events.   I read the book on its own terms, and found it unputdownable.

I hoarded Baby No-eyes for 2014 Indigenous Literature Week.  I like Patricia Grace’s work, and I snap it up whenever I come across it at second-hand bookshops.  But I would have paid full price for this if I’d known about it when it was first published – I will never understand why Australian bookshops don’t include more stock from NZ  – the Kiwis are our neighbours!

If you haven’t already signed up for 2014 ILW, here’s the link!

PS That arresting cover design is by Mary Egan.

Author: Patricia Grace
Title: Baby No-eyes
Publisher: Penguin Books (New Zealand) 1998
ISBN: 9780140279931
Source: personal library, purchased from Brotherhood Books

Availability

Fishpond: Baby No Eyes


Responses

  1. Interesting I’d love to read this I really enjoy the other book by her I read and also the bits about her as a person I’ve read here and there

    • Hi Stu, was that Potiki? I liked that too, I have to source more of her books, she has such an interesting style…

      • It was I think only one readily available here as put out by capuchin editions

        • You’d be surprised to know how hard it is to get New Zealand books in bricks-and-mortar bookshops here, and we’re only across the ditch (the Tasman Strait). It was only once I discovered Fishpond that I found a reliable supplier, and fortunately they also sell second-hand so I can sometimes get hold of titles that are out-of-print as well.

  2. Patricia Grace is my favourite Kiwi author (I’m married to a Kiwi so I read a smattering of Kiwi lit, strongly supported by my Kiwi mother-in-law). I haven’t read this one yet, or Potiki (although I have a copy of Potiki on my tbr pile). I want to read all of her books.

    • She’s fantastic, IMO. I love the way she weaves Maori culture into everything but I can still understand it even though *blush* I’ve still not been to NZ yet.

      • Wow! For a well travelled lass I’m surprised you haven’t been, it is a truly beautiful country.

        • I know, I know, but I’m saving it for my old age when I can’t manage long haul flights any more!


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