Suraya Dewing – Bend with the Wind

Bend with the Wind cover

Bend with the Wind by Suraya Dewing.
Feilding: Rangitawa Publishing (2015).
RRP: $35.
Pb, 433pp.
ISBN: 9780994120168.

Reviewed by Carolyn McCurdie.

Bend With the Wind, Suraya Dewing’s second novel, presents us with an important New Zealand story.

It is, among other things, a love story, set in 1981, the year the Springbok rugby team came to Aotearoa New Zealand from white-ruled South Africa. Shortly before the tour, Joe and Sophie meet in Auckland and fall in love. Sophie is a university student from a privileged Pākehā family. Joe, a rugby-loving cop, is Māori, and hails from Taranaki, near the pa of Parihaka – the historic site of pacifist protest against the confiscation of Māori land.1

Distressed by the prospect of the Springbok tour, Sophie becomes involved in the anti-tour protest movement. Sophie’s hard-nosed father is bitter at the failed attempt to claim Māori land at Bastion Point for elite property development and, through his involvement in the dairy industry, he is also in conflict with struggling Taranaki farmers, one of whom is Joe’s father. It transpires that a family ancestor was amongst the troops who massacred peaceful Māori at Parihaka. When Sophie meets Joe’s family, one of his cousins objects to her presence because of her race. Against such odds, Joe and Sophie survive.

The story opens in 2008, on the first day of Joe’s tangi. Sophie, the grieving widow, is there, together with their adult daughter and with the support of both extended families. The arc of the novel repeatedly loops back to this solemn time and circumstance: from the frequent hostilities of the main storyline, we return to the slow, quiet details of the tangi: the ceremony, the tears, the honouring of Joe’s life. I found this powerful. The effect is of a song of love and reconciliation, woven through the turbulence and despair.

I liked the way that the story moved back and forth through time: the tangi and its shared memories of a life; the depictions of 1881 Parihaka where the peaceful resistance was answered with despoliation; the dramatic conflicts of 1981, and the connections between all of these events as they shaped characters’ experiences. These strands come together to underscore one of the major themes of the book: the presence of the past in the present, that each is an aspect of the other. This was skilfully done.

That said, in my view, this novel went to print too early. Much could have been deleted. I appreciate that Dewing is trying to give as full and fair a picture as possible, but the story suffers from her reluctance to leave anything out. It’s also marred by over-writing, banal dialogue and stylistic clumsiness: “He planted his feet, on which he wore blue denim sneakers with white laces, and crossed his arms.” A confrontation between Joe and Maaka, his Black Power cousin, becomes repetitive, boring. Dewing is a writer who can do better than this, and does so later in the novel. Her account of the protest that shut down the rugby game at Hamilton is well-crafted and gripping.

So, am I recommending Bend with the Wind? Yes. I was glad I persevered. It’s a brave, ambitious attempt to address deep wounds and misunderstandings that arise from both historical and present injustice. Bend with the Wind is an exploration of the possibility of healing. I finished reading it feeling energised by the optimism of the story. For all its faults, this is a novel with heart, and one that achieves much of what it sets out to do.

1 Sixteen hundred police and volunteers participated in the attack on the pacifist non-cooperation stance taken by Māori at Parihaka against land confiscations. Led by Te Whiti-o-Rongomai (Taranaki/Te Ātiawa), Tohu Kākahi (Taranaki/Ngāti Ruanui), and Tītokowaru (Ngāti Ruanui), more than 2000 villagers sat quietly on the marae as a group of singing children greeted the force led by Native Minister and Wanganui MP John Bryce. He had described the marea as, ‘that headquarters of fanaticism and disaffection’. Bryce ordered the arrest of Parihaka’s leaders, the destruction of the village and the dispersal of most of its inhabitants. The government responded to the Parihaka protesters by passing laws aimed specifically at them and, ultimately, by imprisoning people without trial.

Carolyn McCurdieCarolyn McCurdie is a Dunedin writer of fiction and poetry. She has had published: The Unquiet, a children’s novel, (Dunedin: Longacre Press: 2006); Albatross, a short story collection (e-publisher Rosa Mira Books: 2014), and Bones in the Octagon, a poetry collection (Wellington: Makaro Press: 2015). Carolyn is active in Dunedin’s live poetry scene.

First published takahe 87
August 2016