t. 96, Tony Chapelle, A Distant Belonging

A Distant Belonging by Tony Chapelle
Fielding: Rangitawa Publishing. (2017). RRP: $38.00
Pb, 306pp
ISBN: 9780994149039
Reviewed by Patricia Prime


Tony Chapelle has given us three of the most original New Zealand books in recent years, but his latest book, A Distant Belonging seems to show an intensification of his highly personal vision. In this book he takes us ever deeper into the New Zealand of the 1950s and 60s. The book is a sequel to Merely a Girl and The Youngest Son. The book is set in New Zealand in the 1950s and 60s, in which Jamie Ashcott is a descendant of early British settlers who have little interest in their origins. He knows who he is and where he belongs. Or does he? The book recounts the lives of a family who emigrated to New Zealand from Wales. One branch of the family lives in Taranaki, and the other goes to live in Fiji.

The New Zealand part of the story is told through the eyes of Jamie Ashcott, the great grandson of the first settlers in Taranaki and the story begins after the Second World War. The opening paragraph sets the scene:

The place where Jamie’s mother has placed their picnic things – rug, basket and bottles – is a mile or so up the valley from their home, which is itself near the coast an hour’s journey by bus north from Auckland.They have reached the spot on their bicycles. (3).

Soon, we are in Jamie’s mind: “Before very long he feels that he might be lost, but he is not frightened by the discovery. He stops running and stands still, enjoying the novelty of the sensations that flood into him.” The fact that the reader is taken into his subconscious, brings the process of being a child to light in startling vividness.

Jamie’s mother has lost her eldest son, Haddon, who was killed during the war. She gives Jamie a diary, written by her grandmother, who settled in Taranaki in the 1860s. Here we are given an account of the land Wars in Taranaki and learn of Adelaide Gilbard’s disgust at the treatment of Maori at Parihaka. This excerpt is taken from Adelaide’s journal:

On the settler side, the common attitude seems to be one of now looking upon the Maori as being largely an irrelevance. They have been defeated. Their numbers continue to decline. What was their productive land is now, settler land, and what land remains to them is largely of inferior quality. (206).

Adelaide has a close friendship with a Maori woman, Hannah, and they start a group dedicated to uniting Maori and Pakeha. Their vision is of a society based on honesty, respect and tolerance.

In Chapter Two – Fiona and Tela –  we meet two young girls. Fiona decides she will ask her father if she can have a new pony. The other young girl, Tela, is Fijian. Her father is aware that she has special qualities and boasts about her cleverness. In a few chapters, Chapelle thus establishes his central characters and the potential of their lives.

Tela feels little attachment to the country of her birth. They are two children of emigrants whose lives become entwined in unpredictable ways. Jamie eventually goes to university in Wellington, where he meets Tela She has her own story about her childhood and life at a boarding school in New Zealand. These people are brought vividly to life, using voices of the past and present, counterpointing their invention and story-telling.

Tela is at the end of her two-year terms as Junior Lecturer. She has enjoyed it. More than that – she now knows that a career as a University Lecturer is precisely the one she wants. But she is also looking forward Immensely to taking up the Commonwealth Scholarship she has been awarded. (185).

The story continues with these two young people, and their discovery that they can both trace their origins to the same estate in Wales:

As she enters her third year in Cambridge, she receives another letter from Fi, one that sets her mind reeling. At first she can hardly take in the words, but as their evident truth takes hold in her mind, disbelief is replaced by a jumble of emotions that she cannot immediately come to terms with. She absorbs the information the letter contains quickly, in a single gulp. She does not doubt it. It is as if she already knew. There can hardly be any doubt. She and Jamie Ashcott are cousins! (260).

Chapelle has the gift of taking these sprawling stories and imbuing their characters with energy and life.

Patricia Prime, besides being a regular contributor to takahē, is co-editor of Kokako and assistant editor of Haibun Today. Patricia’s primary interest is Japanese short form poetry – shaiku, tanka, haibun and tanka prose – and she has published a book of collaborative tanka sequences called Shizuka (2015).