Cousins: A tale of three wāhine, a tale of Aotearoa

Cousins is not Patricia Grace's most recent novel (it was published in 1992) but it may yet find a latterday readership with the release of a new movie adaptation.

It's certainly worthy of one.

It's the story of three cousins; Mata, Makareta and Missy. It's about their lives, their loves and losses, and the ties that bind them together despite the different paths their lives take.

In terms of genre it's much harder to describe. It's historical fiction at its best - the sense of time and place is so strongly evoked you feel immersed in it. I found myself wondering if this was what my grandmother's life (Māori, living rurally in substandard housing with lots of kids) was like. The level of detail in the portrayal of day to day domestic life, from fetching water, to washing, to gathering food, and childbirth all sound and smell and feel real, not imagined.

It's also a great example of saga fiction as the story flows over and through multiple generations of the Pairama whānau, in the process reflecting changes in New Zealand society through the lives of its characters. From WWII to the Māori urban migration, to the Land March of 1975, and on through the struggle to reclaim te reo Māori as an official language of Aotearoa - each of these are pivotal moments in New Zealand history - it's epic stuff, but seen through the eyes of everyday characters just trying to get by as best they can. All of them faced with tough decisions and usually being pulled in different directions by other people.

We first meet the cousins post-WWII and we hop back and forth between them but also along different points in their lives. The effects of colonisation on their family and their prospects are a large part of their struggles, particularly for Mata who is abandoned by her Pākehā father to the care of a guardian who places her in a girls' home - she is completely disconnected from her roots, her language, her culture and her Māori family (who are not considered suitable guardians). Mata is taught by this institution (or is it society at large?) to reject her history, her name (she is renamed "May" by the home) and herself. But in the face of tragedy after tragedy she holds on to at least her name.

Although the book follows all three cousins it is ultimately Mata's journey that bookends the tale and provides the emotional resolution to the story. 

It's not a light story - this book was an anchor, pulling at me with its gravity - but it's a deeply satisfying, authentic one and a great piece of New Zealand fiction.

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