Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 17, 2016

Chappy, by Patricia Grace

ChappyChappy is one of the titles longlisted for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards for Fiction, and it’s also a literary ‘event’ in its own right because it’s Patricia Grace’s first novel in ten years.   I loved it; it’s a beautiful, satisfying story exploring the adjustments people must make when there are cross-cultural relationships.  Like other novels by Patricia Grace that I’ve read, it also features themes of belonging, social change and cultural disruption, and the responsibilities of family life.

The book begins in Europe, with a prologue about Daniel, a discontented young man of Maori and Danish heritage, who lacks the initiative to sort himself out.  His mother, a smart successful woman with a career of her own, makes the decision for him: if he’s not going to pull himself together and get on with his studies, he must go ‘home’ to his relations in New Zealand where he will soon learn just how privileged he is.

So this is what he does, and along with learning to share the work of the household and farm, he becomes absorbed in the family’s history.

The narration is unusual.  Daniel records his ‘interviews’ with his uncle Aki, and these are translated into English by his grandmother Oriwia, who sometimes can’t resist providing some commentary of her own.  Chapter headings always name the storyteller, but because Aki’s chapters are filtered through Oriwia’s translations, the two separate narrations are not in voices distinct from each other and readers need to pay attention to who is doing the telling.

More interesting is the absent voice of Chappy, Daniel’s Japanese grandfather in the novel.  The family story revolves around Chappy, but he is made known to Daniel and to the reader only by observations of his actions, and his motivations are always interpreted by others.  What Chappy thinks, and why he acts as he does is never revealed by Chappy himself, although he eventually learns to speak Maori and could explain if he wanted to.   This is an authorial choice which reinforces the separateness of Chappy throughout his entire lifetime.

The way Chappy comes into the lives of an impoverished Maori family between the wars is emblematic of Grace’s interest in cultural disruption.   As explored in Potiki, Maori families that were able to hang onto their land in the face of Pakeha acquisition were rarely able to make a living, and Aki, prompted by a family tragedy, leaves home to become a sailor.  He comes across a starving stowaway from Japan, and brings him home to New Zealand where he is restored to health by the family.  Suffering from a family shame from which he cannot recover, this man is given a new name and a new identity when he is formally adopted into the Maori family of his rescuer.  This was easy enough because it was a time when Maori – who had not previously been registered anywhere in a bureaucratic way but were known to each other by complex genealogies –  were required to register a second name anyway.

The gulf between the rigid requirements of the Pakeha authorities and the flexible welcome of the Maori doesn’t matter much at first.  There is no question of Chappy finding employment, because questions would be asked, but he contributes to the life of the farm and he also introduces an exquisite form of craftsmanship.  He watches the women weave baskets (kete) and transforms himself from a useful labourer into an artist:

The grandmothers stopped what they were doing to watch a miracle occur – to witness the long hands lay the bamboo stalks down, to see the threading, the tying, the shaping, the binding, the trimming, the finishing, and finally the placing of this new thing on the pile with the other baskets.

No, no, it could not go on the pile.

This new object would not be used as a spud bag.  It was a treasure and mustn’t be sold.  It was so unique that it could only be given away.  From that time on, whenever there was a gathering of people for a celebration, such as a wedding or a special birthday, Chappy’s baskets would be part of the gift-giving.  The mothers would place him prominently as their group was called on the marae, baskets hooked onto his arms.  As gifts they were unmatched.  They were referred to in speeches. (p. 88)

However, when World War II intervenes, and a long-established German family is interned, Chappy disappears.  Without warning, without farewell.  Leaving behind his wife Oriwia and his two daughters.  It takes many long years before he is found again, and no one ever really learns the reasons for his behaviour, only that he feared for his part-Japanese daughters if his presence in New Zealand ever led back to them.   Meanwhile Oriwia has to get on with her life, and cultural disruptions influence that too as she juggles her ambitions for her daughters’ education against love and family and also has to make hard decisions about where she is to live.

(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.)

For a character who has barely a word in the novel, Chappy is a powerful figure.  His flight during wartime New Zealand shows that he is more aware of the realities of war than his naïve new family, and his concept of duty transcending all other considerations is confronting not only to those who love him but also to the reader.  The way he submits to becoming part of the working world of the Maori women is in stark contrast to what is commonly known about patriarchal Japanese society; and from what little is told of his reasons for leaving Japan, the reader can draw conclusions about how conformist Japanese society was at that time in its history.

Although the generosity of the Maori welcome is perhaps a little idealised, there is an optimism about Chappy that I really liked.  The quest for belonging can be realised if there is good will and acceptance, and if people are willing to take people as they are.  Nowhere is this shown more clearly than in the scene where Chappy is attacked by a returned PoW: only one who is deranged would see this gentle, placid Japanese man as a symbol of the horrors of the Pacific war.  The Maori men take Noddy away and care for him.  It is not his fault that he sees a stereotype and not an individual.  He is damaged by his experiences.  But Chappy cannot be held responsible for that…

I am pleased to be able to say that this book is available in Australia.  I bought my copy at Readings:)

Author: Patricia Grace
Title: Chappy
Publisher: Penguin NZ, 2015
ISBN: 9780143572398
Source: Personal library, purchased at Readings, $36.99

You can also buy it from Fishpond Chappy (same price,  but free delivery)

 


Responses

  1. Did you know we discussed Chappy?

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    • No, sorry, I haven’t been keeping up. What did you think of it?

      Like

  2. This sounds very interesting, Lisa. Particularly, the narration. I think the book is still not available in India. But, I surely want to read it. :)

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    • I think it will probably be as hard for you to get a copy as it is for us to get books from Penguin India!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. […] See my reviewAcross the ditch in New Zealand, the 2016 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards longlist has been announced.  This is actually the first time they’ve announced the longlist, and they’re doing it because it provides publicity and recognition of a wider group of authors.  It’s certainly a good idea, because for me it provides a useful list of novels to track down and new authors to get to know. […]

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  4. […] Press) (See my review and a Sensational Snippet) Chappy by Patricia Grace (Penguin Random House) See my review Coming Rain by Stephen Daisley (Text Publishing) See my review The Invisible Mile by David Coventry […]

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