The Bolthole, a novel of New Zealand
by Lawrence Winkler
Victoria, BC: Choice Books (2017)
RRP: $25.99. Pb, 282pp
Reviewed by Peter Brigg
This book hovers in a very strange and intricate space. It is at once a sort of novel but is also New Zealand history of a sort and archaeology and it is a book about place. It also has a ‘target’ issue as it is written by a Canadian who spends a good part of his life in New Zealand’s Coromandel Peninsula. Rarely have I read a book with so many local words – many of which have meaning to New Zealanders but would puzzle outsiders. Forty-seven pages of research notes at the end are a tribute to the author’s fascination with his adopted hideaway but readers don’t go to such notes.
The governing ideas of the book are intricately interleaved. It is built around a place, the bolthole or hiding place, beside running water in the deep and beautiful bush. Three ages of man experience it. Tama, a young tribal chief circa 1769, flees to it in a storm of tribal combat. Billy, a gold miner in the 1890’s, comes to it and struggles with his claim, and Dr Sababa, a Canadian physician married to a Kiwi, comes to the place he loves to die of prostate cancer in 2016. The chapters are each split in three as the men move through the arcs of their lives.
The problems with the book are problems of control. Because a helicopter will appear (as part of a vividly angry section on the urban NZ invasion of nature) Winkler feeds us two pages of description of its physical interior. He cannot resist including waves of old popular poetry from the gold rush days nor can he hold back tsunamis of anecdotes from the era, many of which are just stuffed in. And the author keeps changing tone from fictional events and narrative to digressions which explain things about New Zealand culture and history. The prose is uneven, with occasional bits of powerful lyricism and other bits of slow ploughing.
At Tama’s death a priest intones ‘Man passes away, but the land endures forever.’ This book is a paean to a treasured place, and it is at once rich and alive and yet conflicted by the effort to convey a deep affection while rambling through history and anecdote.
Peter Brigg was a Professor in the School of English and Drama at the University of Guelph. He also taught in Shanghai and at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch. He has researched New Zealand distopic writing. He loves New Zealand almost as much as Dr. Winkler does.