Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Beats you down and builds you back up #bookreview

Ruby reviews Once Were Warriors by Alan Duff

Here's another case of the contrary reader. Mrs R's book club chose Once Were Warriors as their book of the month and, despite it being only 198 pages, Mrs R baulked at the serious-looking cover and hesitated to get stuck in. So, rising to the unspoken challenge, I grabbed the paperback and ran off to my kennel with it, growling whenever anyone came near.

This isn't a new release - it was first published in New Zealand in 1990 and was made into a film, apparently - but was a hit at the time. I didn't research the author's background, like I usually do. I just ran headlong into the story. Looking now at the acknowledgements in the front of the book, the author thanks his editor, Richard King, for agreeing to forgo the conventions. He sure did that.

The narrative style is like a stream of consciousness, from varying viewpoints and delivered third person. That editorial flexibility allows extensive use of slang, profanity and grammatical deviations. This is deep third person, a voice that puts the reader on the shoulder of the alternate narrators without having to live inside their heads. And that's a good thing because being on the shoulders of Jake, Beth, Grace and Nig Heke is something that can be difficult to bear at times. No criticism of the writing there, just a nod to the gravity of the story.

Over a quarter of a century has passed since Alan Duff first wrote Once Were Warriors but the curses of the human condition are as real today as they were then, perhaps more so. Duff describes a long-term unemployed, geographically isolated, poorly educated, disenfranchised, underprivileged and alcohol addicted underclass in New Zealand. A once proud warrior race whose sense of identity has faded to become characterized by such icons as rugby players and an opera singer. Unless you've lived a life of complete privilege (as do the Traumbert family in this book), you will recognize the elements of despair: low self-esteem from poor education and exploited minimum wage labour, frustrations taken out on friends, family and acquaintances; job insecurity perpetuated by alcohol-fueled absenteeism; escape offered by substance abuse; bread-line poverty that spirals down into inescapable debt; gang culture that respects mindless violence and destroys family life. Now you really want to read it!

This short novel is an irresistible train wreck of a story. The author speaks from personal experience, being half Maori and half Pakeha. There is a glimmer of hope. Read Once Were Warriors, recognise the frailties of the human race, thank your lucky stars for what you have and see the positive in everyone. I'm not going to describe the plot but all I will say is I don't think Jake did it. It was Dooly.

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