Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 26, 2015

Cousins (1992), by Patricia Grace

ilw 2015
I decided to kick off my first review for Indigenous Literature Week with a novel by Patricia Grace of Ngati Toa, Ngati Raukawa and Te Ati Awa descent, because she is visiting Melbourne for the Melbourne Writers Festival and the First Nations Australia Writers’ Network Workshop.  Grace is one of New Zealand’s best known writers and has an impressive body of work which includes novels, short stories and children’s books.  Her best known work is probably the ground-breaking Potiki (1986) which I reviewed a while ago but I also enjoyed Baby No-Eyes which came out in 1998. (See my review).  In between these two novels, however, came Cousins in 1992, and I think I like this one best of all.

(But perhaps I should reserve my judgement because I’ve just ordered her new one, Chappy, from Readings – and it’s getting rave reviews in NZ. I also found a copy of Tu (2004) at Brotherhood Books, so these are treats in store.)

Cousins (517x800)Cousins begins with the heart-breaking story of Mata.  There are three interlocking stories, with narrations that shift to allow for differences in intimacy.  We meet Mata striding along the road at night, barefoot and with nothing but the clothes on her back and a photo of her mother, who died when she was a little girl.  Mata’s story is poignantly told from her child’s point-of-view, punctuated by her middle-aged first-person narration, which works like a barrier against revealing her feelings.

Where?  Didn’t want to ask where or why, or to have thoughts that lead to thinking. Only wanted hands in shoes in pockets and just herself, her own ugly self, with her own big feet and big hands, her own wide face, her own bad hair, which was turning white, springing out round her big head. One coat, one dress. Shoes on their last legs or in their last pockets, a photo in a frame, and her name. (p. 14)

Mata Pairama spent her childhood adrift from her culture.  Her father refused to let her extended family take care of her and abandoned her to the guardianship of Mrs Parkinson, who offloaded her to an orphanage.  Her childhood was spent in terror of an omnipotent Old Testament God, in the loneliness of a child who belongs to no one, and in confusion about her identity.  She is re-named May Palmer, but that doesn’t make her acceptable to the mother of her only friend, Betty, who wasn’t allowed to bring dirty, black children into the house… 

By chance when Mata is ten, the resemblance to her cousin Makarata is spotted in the school playground and the orphanage allows her to spend a three week holiday with her extended family.  With Mrs Parkinson’s exhortations to be on guard against sin, bad companions and the devil ringing in her ears, Mata sits on the train looking out for houses…

because that was what she liked best, liked thinking about houses.

Inside houses were mothers, fathers and children, tables and chairs, cups and dishes in cupboards, curtains with flowers on them, floral wallpaper, patterned mats of floors, beds with shiny bedspreads, drawers and wardrobes full of clothes.  There were toys and dolls.  The dolls had dresses and pants and there were tins of beads that you could make bangles and necklaces with, threading the beads on cotton – green white read, green white red, all red, all green, any way you like.  When it was long enough you tied it round the doll’s wrist or neck. (p.17)

But the house where her aunty lives is not what she expected:

There’d been room for her to sit between the table and the wall and there was a little window high above her head.  It was like being in the fort that the School boys had made once, out of boxes and boards. There was a stove with a pot and a kerosene tin on it, a basin and a row of tins on a bench and boxes nailed to the walls like cupboards without doors.  In the boxes were plates and mugs, bowls and billies and knives.  The walls were papered with old Free Lance and Auckland Weekly pages and there was a lamp hanging from the ceiling on a piece of S-shaped wire.

The poverty and squalor of entrenched disadvantage is seen vividly through this child’s eyes.  The toilet is outside at the end of a long path and there were flies and spiders and maybe snakes.  She doesn’t like eating eels from the river, and she is shocked that she has to share a bed with one of her cousins.  The other kids seem to run wild, and she doesn’t fit in.  She wants to go ‘home’.

But things improve.  By contrast, her grandmother Keita’s house is a ‘real’ house as befits her status as the matriarch.  It has windows, bedrooms, and curtains, and the food smells good.  That night Aunty Gloria cuddles her to sleep, and tells her that she is a loved member of the family and that she belongs to them.  Keita gives her a photo of her mother, and she is shown her mother’s grave, and the graves of her ancestors, and told the story of how her mother Anihera ran away to the city with a man who was no good.  But Mata is utterly overwhelmed by it all.  She is confused when Keita insists on calling her Mata instead of May, and she doesn’t understand the language of her own culture, Māori.

And most poignant of all, back at the orphanage, she thinks that none of it was true.  She wasn’t their girl at all.  She had waited every day but they hadn’t sent for her. She’d never heard from any of them, never been there again. (p.56) She doesn’t know how her grandmother tried to get her back, and failed. So Mata spends her life waiting…

Mata’s cousin Makarata is the Chosen One, the ceremonial puhi.  (See the Mai Review for a very interesting article about this).  Traditionally, puhi were treasured daughters of chiefs, were of high rank, endowed with aristocracy, and fiercely protected and respected by the tribe. They were renowned for their beauty, their courage and leadership, and their role was to keep the tribe protected, safe and prosperous.  They were cherished as future leaders and led very privileged lives.  Indeed, Makarata never brushes her own hair until she goes to boarding school and has to be taught by the other girls how to do it.  But puhi were also often betrothed at birth, mainly to formalise alliances with another iwi or tribe.  In the 1970s when feminism was changing the role and expectations of women around the world, the puhi tradition was destined to clash with the independence and self-empowerment that Makarata yearns to have.

Makarata’s narrative voice is mature and sophisticated and she speaks standard ‘educated’ English.  Her mother, Polly had left the community, ostensibly to care for her sick sister Cassie and the children in the city, but it was really because after mourning her husband Rere who was killed during WW2, that Polly wanted a city life.  Like Anihera and others of this generation, Cassie had not wanted to have the elders choose her husband for her, and the husband she chose is ‘no good’ either.  Polly leaving the whānau (family) arouses strong feelings of disapproval, but when she isn’t able to care for Makarata the child is brought up by her grandmothers, cosseted and loved, and eventually sent to boarding school where she does very well.

However, Makarata too rejects the traditional role that was chosen for her, causing upset and shame to the entire family.  In Wellington, she becomes a nurse, which involves breaking various traditions to do with touching other people and the care of the dead.   The author makes use of Māori and Pākehā names to denote the extent to which family members identify with their own community or reject it, and later, when Makarata marries ‘out’ she names her children Michael and Kate.  It’s not until the period of Maori activism and the Land March in the 70s when she has been married for ten years that Makarata’s pakeha husband Rick discovers that she speaks Māori.

Missy’s story is narrated from a child’s point of view, by the spirit of her unborn twin brother, never acknowledged at birth, which has curled itself into Missy.  Her Māori name is Maleme Karoria Tatua.  She’s one of a somewhat chaotic but loving family of seven children, and her father is a good-natured but irresponsible drunk.  She goes to school irregularly, but is there enough to absorb the message that speaking her own language is forbidden and that Māori children are not expected to achieve much.  Missy is mildly jealous of poor little unloved Mata when she visits, and in a family where the children amuse themselves unsupervised, is nonplussed about how to relate to this forlorn child, too scared to do anything that might get her clothes dirty. Missy’s future doesn’t seem bright until she steps into a place for which she is wholly unprepared and unexpectedly finds love and respect.

In adulthood these lives are transformed.  Makarata becomes a powerful spokesperson for her people in the political-legal battle for Māori self-determination and land rights, and a chance meeting at a critical time in her life leads to a reunion and the end of estrangements.  Cousins is a beautiful, thought-provoking book that made me wish I knew more about the Māori culture.  I think that a New Zealand literary festival at the some time in the future might be the catalyst for me to start learning…

BTW It’s a bit dated, but I found this interesting little snippet called the Beginners Guide to Visiting a Marae from a NZ government website about settling in as a migrant

Author: Patricia Grace
Title: Cousins
Publisher: Penguin New Zealand, 1992
ISBN: 9780140168082
Source: Personal library, purchased from Brotherhood Books.

Patricia Grace’s books are still in print in New Zealand, but although you might find her latest title in an Australian bookshop, you’re not likely to find her backlist unless you strike lucky like I did in a second-hand bookshop.  Your best bet is Fishpond because they deliver free to Australia.   This is the link for Cousins.

PS I’ll be setting up the page for other Indigenous Literature Week reviews in the next day or so….


  1. I love Patricia Grace – I have read and loved Dogside Story and Tu and have a couple more on my shelves. She describes the Maori culture beautifully.


    • Yes, for me, this is the bonus in running ILW: I get to learn about it, from the inside so to speak. I haven’t got Dogside Story yet, but it’s on my wishlist.


  2. […] traces a little boy’s first day at school.  His name is Whaimata, (and unlike the teachers in Patricia Grace’s story Cousins which I have just reviewed) this teacher doesn’t anglicise his name, although it is […]


  3. […] (There is a lovely tender passage about how Oriwia had always slept together with her own sister Moana-Rose until she went away to the city, and how she always left that part of the bed unslept on thereafter.  The disruption caused by movement to the city for a ‘better life’ is explored more fully in Cousins.) […]


  4. […] as  New Zealand became more urbanised (a phenomenon described in Patricia Grace’s novel Cousins, as rural family life was disrupted by girls moving to work in town).  Unionism was under attack […]


  5. […] he embarks for war rather than when he gets back.  Compared to the dynamic women of Potiki (1986), Cousins (1992), and Baby No-eyes (1998), these women are insignificant.  Perhaps it is the author’s […]


  6. […] But in Wellington he can reinvent himself.  As for the girls in Patricia Grace’s Cousins (see my review) city life is a chance to create a new life, a new family and to have hope.  But it is not the […]


  7. […] Cousins, (1992); see my review […]


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