House of Strife.
House of Strife is the third act in Maurice Shadbolt's latest performance, his trilogy on the New Zealand interethnic civil wars. It is a performance within a performance, as the narrator and former penny dreadful novelist recounts his recollection of events of the mid-1840s in the Bay of Islands. Shadbolt catches wonderfully well the appropriate Victorian tone and emulates the literary devices, such as the schism within the narrator between his red-blooded fantasist and literary gent selves, and the ironies such as those encapsulated in the teller's name, Wildblood. The author revels in the sturdy application of an English club-man's values to everything and everyone, but performance it relentlessly is, to the irritation or delectation of the reader, as taste disposes.
Shadbolt's interest is to debunk rather than deconstruct history. He seeks to display the reported famous and infamous as ordinary, chance-driven bumblers like the rest of us, even dire bloodshed and undoubted honor being lurched toward amid tragicomedy, sheer farce, and intermittent pain. At his best he compellingly takes the reader with him, most notably into the action of the first battle at Kawiti's fortification.
But the author - and not only the narrator - also boldly blunders in among things Maori in this as in the other two novels, Season of the Jew and Monday's Warriors, interpreting events and the characters and their maria and the way that they are pressed upon by many worlds - British, Maori, past, present, te ao marama, and the spiritual world - quite callowly. Indeed, I see little recognition of the actual cultural dimensions of the Maori of that era. The novel presents a world shaped by individual decision. The confused tides of character perception and apperception are constructed well, but the characters are scarcely located within any wider social forces that might also shape mind and self and decision. I doubt that these traits can simply be ascribed to the narrator of this novel, for they appear also in other Shadbolt works.
What Shadbolt has done is to create his own mythology of New Zealand's past. And of course he has every right to do this, he a fictioneer. It is more that his British publishers have less right to proclaim this as "historical detective work." The truths of these antipodean isles are less lucid than they seek to imply. At bottom, Shadbolt's is quite conventional myth. This is Shakespearean-style history, the story of the gentlefolk of either side, who appear here in the drag of common selves. Plebeians tend to figure in lively but nonetheless stock roles, such as the native doxy, the cowardly merchant, the self-preserving mission boys.
Shadbolt's narrating is crisp, his plot unfolds economically and deftly, and because he employs a Victorian teller his book has in plenty the vigorous figures of speech many reviewers equate with wit and style. He would be inclined to defend his version of past events. But he may have to contend harder for his view of a humanity where deeds and values are so very much scripted within the theater of desires.
Bernard Gadd Papatoetoe, N.Z.
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|Publication:||World Literature Today|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1995|
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