Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 10, 2022

The Graphologist’s Apprentice (2010), by Whiti Hereaka

Way back in 2018 when I stumbled on a recommendation for Maori playwright, novelist and screenwriter Whiti Hereaka’s debut novel The Graphologist’s Apprentice, I bought it without knowing that it had been shortlisted for Best First Book in the 2011 Commonwealth Writers Prize (Asia/Pacific region).

This year Whiti Hereaka (b. 1978) went on to win the $60,000 Jann Medlicott medal at the the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards for her book Kurangaituku. which inverts the legend of Hatupatu and the fearsome birdwoman Kurangaituku by narrating the story through Kurangaituku’s perspective in an experimental form.  So I’m late to be discovering what an exceptional author Hereaka is… but better late than never!

The central character in The Graphologist’s Apprentice is January, who has made a complete break with her former life by changing her name by deed poll.  She is alone and alienated from the people around her, from her job, and from a family never mentioned.  As one of the characters says, January is…

A girl who lacks empathy and seems to want to keep the world at a distance. (Kindle Loc 1540)

Her inner commentary on the people around her is often very funny, but they are a sign that she is in psychological distress.

January imagines the Situations Vacant ad for her position. Are you an unmotivated no-getter who is sick of a challenge? Do you suffer fools gladly? Do you have limited aspirations for your future? If you answered ‘yes’ you’re the perfect fit for our company. Welcome! (Loc 1787)

The firm’s Christmas party is real torment:

A murder of managers, black suits and constricting ties, frown into their wine, a flock of geeks try to out-lame each other with their ironic t-shirts and their micro-brewery beer, and a pride of those who have lost all of their attempts to dance in the corner. (Loc 411)

Alice looks as if she is having the time of her life. For some reason she invited a date along. The guy doesn’t look like a gormless freak, but if he’s laughing at her jokes he may just be mentally defective. Alice moves her hand on top of his. January suddenly feels like a voyeur. The gnawing in her organs doesn’t abate with a sip of her drink, and not for the first time tonight January wishes that it were something stronger. Cyanide perhaps.

It is the first awkward moment of a romance – when you lie about little things, like your love of blue cheese, just to appease the other. Then later you find that you both detest the stuff; that you were both being polite, and you fall into each other’s arms laughing. The potential of intimacy is heady, and your entire being is focused on getting to know another. Each other’s mind and moods are a mystery that you can’t wait to solve. (Loc 430)

Still grieving the end of a love affair with someone not available to her, January reads romance, and when in her loneliness she meets the graphologist Mae, she wants to learn how to do it too.  Mae claims it is a science [which it isn’t], and an art, for which the graphologist needs to have empathy.  In response to Mae’s demand that she supply a sample of writing about love, she sends Mae a handwritten story lifted from a cheap paperback, embellished with bits and pieces from her own life. Mae isn’t impressed so January tries again, revealing something of the love affair that torments her:

January puts down her pen, the ache in her body all too familiar. She has felt like this since that night. Their first date had set a precedent for the rest of their relationship. If you could call it that: she knows his arms will never be open to welcome her except in darkened alley ways and other clandestine rendezvous points. Some nights when she stares at the stars as he hungrily moves within her something in January tells her to hold on: that one day he will realise that he loves her. All she has to do is wait.

A classic enabler, Alice’s [self-help] books would say. January has created this relationship herself. It is she who has allowed herself to be treated this way, created the roles that they play. She has created her bed and now she must lie in it.

If only she had a bed with him, she would gladly lie there. (Loc 1480)

Mae, an older and seemingly wiser woman, is also clinging onto things past their use-by date.  Like her father, a ‘night man’ she has work that has become redundant in the modern world.

The handwritten note and memo had been a rarity even in Mae’s time as a novice, when the business day had already become measured by the clang of a typewriter. Now, the wealth of samples – personal letters, lists, even deposit slips – has long since disappeared into the digital void. (Loc 1197)

The point is also well-made that something is lost when handwriting disappears.  Graphology may be a pseudo-science, but handwriting does show individuality.

The Graphologist’s Apprentice is a character-driven novel about finding friendship in unexpected places, but the wind and rain of Wellington brings the setting to life and Hereaka’s metaphors are incisive:

  • Other girls: later on the thought of them would tighten my shoulder blades like a laced corset. (Loc 1054)
  • A strange sense of relief relaxes January, as if she was a chocolate éclair at a diabetics’ convention: she is safe from the ravenous jaws. (Loc 1257)
  • Prose as purple as a day-old bruise. (Loc 1466)
  • There are times when Mae wishes January was a little more aware of social mores: that she was more like the pencil she uses to rule lines; that is to say, not so blunt. But then, Mae supposes, she’d be sharp, so it would be much of a muchness really. (Loc 1700)

Highly recommended!

Hereaka is of Ngāti TūwharetoaTe Arawa and Pākehā descent.

I read this book for First Nations Reading Week 2022.

This post was written on the traditional land of the Ngaruk-Willam clan, one of the six clans of the Bunerong (Boonwurrung or Boon wurrung) saltwater people of the Kulin nation.

Author: Whiti Hereaka
Title: The Graphologist’s Apprentice
Publisher: Huia, NZ, 2012, first published 2010
Cover design/illustration: Three Eyes Ltd
Source: personal library, purchased for the Kindle

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