Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 11, 2020

The Matriarch, (1986, The Mahana Family #1) by Witi Ihimaera

The thorny issue of dealing with the contested past is very much with us at the moment, and colonised peoples all over the world are delving into their stories of the past with fresh perspectives.  Most of what I’ve read has been from Australia’s Indigenous authors, but I’ve also read stories from countries in Africa and the Americas, and from Ireland and the Indian subcontinent.

Over all, honest storytelling about the past seems like a good thing  to me —  it tells a different truth to the truth that is in the history books and the documented record, enabling us to re-evaluate what we think we know.  But along with truth which may lead to restitution and justice and healing, storytelling can also pass on resentment and anger and a desire for vengeance, from generation to generation.  It can pass on negative stereotypes about the actors of the past, in unexpected ways.  Honest storytelling is not always an unmitigated good.  Sometimes, IMO, it is better to let the past rest.

Witi Ihimaera’s award-winning novel The Matriarch is an odyssey into New Zealand colonial history and its brutal wars, and it’s written in a way that was innovative for its time, blending fiction with Maori myths and with documented history.  Contrary to my expectations, I did not enjoy reading it.  Not because it’s confronting to read about unpalatable truths in any country’s history, but because I disagree profoundly with the way the author justifies violence.

The narrator, describing the present day town of Matawhero, six kilometres from Gisborne, has a stance I refuse to accept:

The second thing you notice about the small settlement is that nobody likes to talk about the Matawhero Retaliation. Maori people appear to be embarrassed about it as a sign of the old bloodlust and paganism and, anyway, the past is past and they are now getting on very happily with the Pakeha, thank you very much.  They should not be so riddled with guilt; they were victims too, with over thirty Maori killed during the raid, as many as the European dead.  When you ask Pakeha people about it, they, also, begin to shift from the left foot to the right foot. It’s almost as if, in the asking, you are challenging their right to be there; you are making them remember that once not very long ago there was a ‘massacre’ whether they like to admit it or not.  You begin to see them looking grim-faced towards the church where it was all supposed to have happened.  According to popular belief, the white settlers were at prayer when the raiders made their attack on the settlement.  A raid of this sort is much more indictable and much more of an atrocity if it is perpetuated before the face of God.

Perhaps the reason for being tight-lipped is that Poverty Bay citizens now pride themselves on their good record of race relations, and rightly so.  But they need to be told the truth: the Matawhero Retaliation was part of a religious war which the Pakeha himself began.  When religious fervour is engaged, the primary question during any attack is whether you are for or against.  That is why there were both Maori and Pakeha victims.  The death roll would have been longer had Te Kooti cordoned off the settlement; only five homes in Matawhero were successfully attacked.  That at least should reduce the scale of the assault in the popular mind.

Nor was there any slaughter of innocents in the church at Matawhero.  In war there are no innocents.  No right or wrong.  Only the living and the dead.  (p.176, underlining mine).

I was taken aback by this.  The slaughter of babies and children depicted in Ihimaera’s account were innocents.  The disempowered women settlers probably were too.  But babies and children are always innocents no matter the circumstances, and asserting otherwise is a denial of their human rights.  It leads, ultimately, to genocide, and the obscene idea that if you kill enough of the Other, you will solve a problem.

Ihimaero takes many pages to detail his version of what happened, always naming it as a retaliation, rather than a massacre. It makes it seem analogous to the Aboriginal raids in retaliation for massacres of their people.  But  from what I read at NZ History, Te Kooti, a guerrilla leader who thought he was a prophet, was angry about his exile and other affronts to his dignity.

I skipped most of it, but the layout of the pages meant that from time to time my eye could not help but see grotesque barbarism. Appalling treatment of women and children and babies, held accountable by Te Kooti for the actions of their husbands and fathers.  Ihimaera accurately predicts the disgust of his readers, but he is wrong if he thinks the immorality of other religious wars justifies barbarity.  Nothing, IMO, justifies barbarity.  And notice, BTW, how he conflates the Arab-Israeli struggle, which is most certainly not a religious war, into his justifications:

All dead, and to what purpose?  To serve the vanities of man or God?  And who among you is ready to cast the first stone and to say, Te Kooti is to blame.  All religious wars have been marked with similar killings, whether they be during the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, Iraq-Iran wars, and the Arab-Israeli struggle, so don’t protest to me about the Te Kooti Retaliation.

Do I hear you protest at the detailed descriptions of death?  Again, your protests fall on deaf ears.  Death is not pretty, and the people who were killed during the retaliation did not die pretty deaths.  They died in pain.  They died in agony.  At least let us recognise that this is the way of all wars.  (p. 188)

I read this book right to the end, and I acknowledge that it’s very well written, but that is not enough to overcome my distaste for it.

There are other reviews at Goodreads to balance mine, the best of them is here.

Author: Witi Ihimaera
Title: The Matriarch (The Mahana Series #1)
Cover design by Sarah Healey
Publisher: Raupo Books, (an imprint of Penguin Books NZ), 2009, first published 1986
ISBN: 9780143010920, pbk., 498 pages
Source: Personal library



  1. Ooh, maybe not the book for me!


    • TBH, I wouldn’t have kept going with it except that I feel a kind of obligation to read IndigLit from Australia and NZ, and this one was a prize-winner.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The comment “There are no innocents in war’ from a quick Google search I think means it makes no difference whether you are guilty or innocent, in the end you are still either dead or alive. I think your interpretation is not the one I would make Lisa, I don’t think the writer is making a judgment but a statement of fact.
    I think it all sounds a bit bleak for me during covid19 but interesting review thank you!


    • Bleak it certainly is!
      I am going to have to find something more cheering to read:)


  3. Histories of religious sects and colonial power are often contested by stereotypes, violence, and doubt. Ihimaera challenges such contested histories with re-imagining past European-Maori relations rooted in racism, sexism, and other power struggles. Lisa, your review reminds me of the historical dilemma the late African American author Toni Morrison contended with in writing the character Sethe in the novel Beloved. Sethe is loosely based on the real-life enslaved figure, Margaret Garner, who succeeded in killing her daughter in defiance to the slave owner. Morrison raised the question: Did Sethe/Margaret have the right to kill her child? There is no immediate response to this question. Novelists re-inventing history can prove constructive, instructive, or fruitless.


    • And sometimes counterproductive. If Ihimaera was trying to encourage respect for his culture, for me, he has done the very opposite. It isn’t just the account of the massacre, it’s also his assertion of a toxic culture, with power conferred by ancient genealogies and reinforced by violence, as when the matriarch almost kills a man who is denying what she thinks is her right to be heard.


  4. Good on you Lisa for a forthright review. Not that I’m sure I agree with you, but I think I had better read the book.
    Perhaps Kim Scott makes us (whites) feel too comfortable with his non-confrontational portrayal of the invasion of Western Australia. The Maoris were right, are right to be angry and given the slaughter that was visited on Indigenous people all across the Pacific we can hardly complain that their retaliation was outside the Nuremberg rules.
    As to Palestine, the Israelis certainly use their religion to justify their on-going occupation and expansion.


    • This massacre wasn’t retaliation for white violence against the Maori. It was, by this account and what I’ve researched online, because his dignity was offended, which is a pathetic reason for slaughtering unarmed people.


  5. […] The Matriarch, see Lisa’s ANZ LitLover’s review […]


  6. […] tossed across the room, so that reduces the number of contenders.   I think I’ll go with The Matriarch by Witi Ihimaera because I do not like books that justify violence against innocent […]


  7. I need summary of The Matriarch because I am pursuing research work on Please write summary of this .


    • Excuse me? I do not blog here to provide material for students.
      Perhaps you could try reading the book?


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