Books editor Catherine Woulfe follows Wellington author Lawrence Patchett into his extraordinary story of heat and humanity and history repeating.
The Burning River begins like the best kind of yarn. “Someone had been there. Someone strange. In the centre of his camp, a new circle of sooted rocks. A campfire, with the bones of a possum or bird, heaped up. Some intruder’s late-night feast … But there was no movement. Nothing at his hut or the mine face. Just gluggy waves of heat.”
A pīwaiwaka bounces around, chirping.
And just like that, reader, you’re alone. You’re in the wops. You’re in New Zealand – pīwaiwaka, tī kōuka – but you’re cooking possums over a fire, possum over a fire is considered a feast, even, so something’s gone pretty badly wrong.
You’ve got to be careful. Clever. We also find out, in paragraph three – no mucking around – that you’ve got to wrap up your head to keep safe from insects, that you mend plastic containers to trade and that these “trades” are precious. They’re probably Pump bottles. Peanut butter jars. You call them “canisters”. You are neat and resourceful. Other people want what you have, which is a hut and some plastic. It’s hot. You are alone.
I read The Burning River right after I read Jack Lasenby’s Travellers series, again. It was, as the kids say, a mood. I was very tired. It was getting hot. I was stuck in the house with a baby too young to be vaccinated for measles and the world was burning and I felt like I was smothering in stuff, in Lego and New Yorker wrappers and washing and courier bags, in teething toys all over the car and plastic trucks parked up on the table. I would take my baby into the garden and lie beside her under the kānuka and read a bit, squishing the sandflies that went for her thighs.
The plot: Van lives in a coastal swamp. What remains of Wellington, maybe. Slopfish stew. Rag boots. It’s bleak as, and his whānau are steadily dwindling. He catches the eye of a privileged woman, Hana, whose people have barricaded themselves into the best bit of land around. Van and Hana have a pēpi on the way. They also have a mission: find her people a new place to live. Fast.
The notorious Burners, for now settled on a nearby island, plan to ransack Hana’s hilltop home and take it for themselves. Bad Burners! Evil Burners! But it’s not nearly as black and white as that – nothing in this book is – the Burners, in turn, are running scared from desperate people fleeing the wars up north. The goodies are complicated, too – who even are the goodies? Van’s people survive by selling false hope, essentially, to those making the long trek south. Hana’s people? They have planted and nurtured a forest full of nikau. It is a sacred space for them, a sort of method Splore, hung with streamers and “a wet-sounding shush of fronds and kererū that swooped above”. Aha, you think. These people worship nature. Definitely goodies. But then there’s the whacking great fence they use to keep the world at bay – and their decision to dam a lake, dirtying the water for everyone downstream.
Like Lasenby, Patchett lopes easily between reverence and parlour comedy and bushman’s nous. He writes tension and terror. Puffs of humour deployed just right. There are moments when you’ll be like actual lol or please live or oh shit, run. But the pace is tempered, as in Lasenby’s books, by the forever grind of staying alive. It takes ages to mend a plastic canister properly. To learn a language. To grow a nikau, a pēpi.
And much of the story of The Burning River happens in your own head, and not between the lines but before them – it’s you, looking around and joining the dots between now and then, and now and what happened in Aotearoa 250-odd years ago.
Disconcertingly, it’s really not hard to do. Especially when Patchett has Van learn his “waters” – his whakapapa – which nudges readers to swim about a bit in their own, too.
Equally unsettling is that I didn’t find Patchett’s post-apocalyptic version of Aotearoa all that grim, really. I mean a lot of the land was uninhabitable but there were still a few people, enough to form tribes, societies. (Matriarchies, mostly, sensibly). There was that one gorgeous forest, and rumours of others. And birds. Possums. Most of the water was pretty gross – “that black and stinking juice of brack and salt and sunken junk” – but there was enough for the lucky people to survive, if they boiled it and added medicinal herbs. It was hard to get kids to survive until adulthood but nobody was reduced to eating their grandbabies, like in Lasenby’s genius hellscape. (Seriously, read the Travellers books before your kids do, in parts they’re rougher than The Road). So it wasn’t too too nasty a place to hang out.
Something I liked: the most well-drawn character here, and one I suspect Patchett enjoyed the writing of too, is Hana’s daughter Kahu. She’s awesome! Devout and tough and brave; in lots of ways still a kid, in others already a kaiako. Like all kids, eh? Patchett has two daughters and it shows. There are moments where Kahu mocks her mum; a moment where Hana comforts her daughter, “murmured to her so soft and low … a long murmur of phrases and questions all ending with the same word: ‘eh, Bub; nē, Bub.’” That’s it exactly, the mother in me thought. Exactly.
Another thing: Patchett dangles a tiny feather of a parable about the way when Hana’s people travel outside of their borders, they send a kākā up to tell the world they come in peace. This strikes swampwise Van as extraordinarily stupid.
“So we’ve got these tamāhine toa, and they’re constantly looking out for risks and ambush, but we also send a bird up – a bright and noisy bird – and he tells everyone everything about us and where we are. I don’t get it.”
He frets and pesters and Kahu and Hana tell him to get lost, basically. What Van learns is that he might not agree, it might freak him out, the kākā might actually clearly be a terrible plan, but he’s just got to deal.
Such tikanga is important in this future. Elements of it anyway. And the politics of language are stitched deep. Hana’s people speak te reo; so do some of Van’s, but he mostly speaks “Pākehā”. I’m a bit twitchy even writing about this, given I’m Pākehā, but Patchett is Pākehā too, and what I like about how language works in this book is that Van finds it all a total minefield and he’s open about that. He knows that what you speak matters. He feels stink that he’s still learning, both the tikanga and the reo. What he learns – he’s always learning – is that the trying matters, too.
Patchett writes in the acknowledgements: “during the time it took to write this book, my writing was profoundly changed by the effort to learn te reo tuatahi o te whenua, and by the kaiako and ākonga who kindly shared so much with me … I hope this book reflects some of your influence, even as it suggests the continuing learning journey.”
A learning journey. Yeesh, I know, but it is a helpful phrase to explain what Patchett’s pulled off here. The Burning River is not a headlong rush through a ravaged land. It’s no shock-horror show. It’s quieter than that, textured, a sacred forest of meaning and story and maybes. I’m going to learn te reo – slowly, god, inexorably – and then read it again.
The Burning River, by Lawrence Patchett (Victoria University Press, $30) is available at Unity Books.