Top positive review
83 people found this helpful
one for all and all for one
on 15 May 2003
For those of us lucky to have seen the movie adaptation we will have been seduced by its magical allure and simple charm. If this incites us into reading the novel then we are doubly fortunate for we can see at first hand where all the magic comes from. The film works so well because at its heart pulsates a captivating story which is hugely indebted to the imaginative brilliance of the author, Witi Ihimaera. The Whale Rider revolves around a seemingly simple storyline yet it is testament to the novelist"s creative powers that although it is rooted within a specific Maori context on the East coast of the North island, New Zealand, the themes that the novel raises can apply to any similiar situation around the world without losing any of their power.
Koro Apirana is the respected "rangatira" (old noble leader) of the tribe, the chief who is the standard-bearer, the glue that keeps his family and society intact, whose role is to hand down the "mana" (prestige, honour) from generation to generation so that tradition can be kept alive. He is fixed in the "old ways" wanting to instill in the younger generation a respect for history, tradition and ancestry. Koro is Ihimarea"s mouthpiece for the older generation. His sense of right and morality is crudely interrupted when his grand-daughter, Kahu, is born who in turn is the voice through which the young speaks.
On Kahu"s arrival in his family, Koro"s world is thrown upside down. Expecting a boy, so that the chieftainship can be seamlessly passed down from eldest son to eldest son the birth of a girl poses a huge problem in the mind of the chief. This is a masculine world where masculine values are praised and valued such as courage, bravery, strength and resilience. Kahu in his eye doesn"t fulfil these criteria and therefore the line has been broken. In Ihimaera"s skilful characterisation gender stereotypes are subtly subverted in Kahu"s increasing strength as the story unfolds and in Nanny Flower"s, Koro"s wife, fierce indpendent streak who is constantly threatening her husband with a divorce.
From this dramatic opening, Ihimaera weaves a magical story blending myth and reality in equal measure bringing to light questions such as the importance of history, the role of the family, the interaction of man with his environment, conflict between generations and how the past inextricably shapes the present.
In Maori folklore there is a proverb which translated says "At the same time as the spiral is going forward, it is going back". The weight that tradition carries is intrinsic but so is the respect that must be shown towards the future. Koro who embodies the "old ways" and Kahu his fresh-faced ebullient grand-daughter, can they tolerate, love and respect each other in equal measure?
Ihimaera writes with shimmering briliance blessed with a poetic eye for detail and imagery mirrored, perhaps, by his love of nature in all its elemental beauty. It is no coincidence that the chapters are divided into the four seasons for one of the central concepts of the novella is man"s affinity with the natural world. Can love be given and reciprocated with simplicity and integrity? Is man"s inhumanity to man reflected by man"s breach with nature? Whales are a crucial symbol throughout and when a group of them wilfully strand themselves on the beach ( the most poignant scene in the book and one which will bring tears to even the most jaded of readers) is this a portent of something problematic in the human world, the dying of the family ideal perhaps or the loss of communion between man and man, man and beast?
Read this novel and allow yourself to be dazzled. Ihimaera is a confident storyteller, who writes with humour and integrity, whose tale will appeal to children and adults alike. The magic of his writing and his descriptive powers which interweave the human and the natural, the real and the imagined, the concrete and the mythical will leave you spellbound and wash over you like the unrelenting crash of surf. "The Whale Rider" is largely an upbeat tale about love, striving for balance between old and new, tradition and modernity, man and nature, myth and reality.
Philip Larkin quipped that "man hands on misery to man". Ihimaera has a more optomistic take on man"s capacity for good. He illustrates that if we respect and tolerate, love and learn in equal measure and not become blind to love on our own doorstep, regardless of gender, sex or age, then the future for humanity is hopeful. "The Whale Rider" is a great little novel which will give the unaccustomed reader a wonderful insight into Maori life, yet convey how the specific can adapt to the universal and will invite the curious to delve into other works by this intelligent, sensitive and positive storyteller.