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Answering to the Caul by Ted Dawe. Pub Mangakino University Press. 2020.

January 3, 2021 Comments off

This is a powerful novel in two distinctly different parts. The first part is titled Living with the Caul and analyses the life of Andrei Reti a boy who was born with a Caul covering his head. According to folk lore and superstition this will lead to him having an affinity with water with the possibility of drowning being unlikely.

Water does indeed have a great influence on Andrei as he survives drowning in the bath while a baby, and in other incidents in his life that affect his relationships with his whanau. He grows up with a sense of guilt.

However it is poverty and reading that by far have the biggest impact on his life. When your father is in jail and your mother is sick the world looks like a huge and lonely place. Poverty comes through the door and when Andrei’s mother dies he is shipped up to live with whanau in the north where poverty is a daily existence.

He adjusts and his only escape is books. He reads prolifically at a level far in advance of children his own age and this influence of reading is a major theme of the novel.

Up North he comes in contact with a wild family member called Dallas who is violent and on the verge of exploding every minute of the day. Dallas introduces him to the adult world and is to have a major impact on his life in the second part of this novel but you will have to read it to find out how. Needless to say Dallas regards the two factors that control his life as Whanau and utu. There is no room for aroha as Andrei tells him.

The story is narrated by Andrei and covers his early childhood and school up to high school. It then jumps into adulthood and the repercussions of his childhood and the Caul come to the fore.

Part two is another story as it is set in Thailand but I will leave that to you the reader. Needless to say there is an incident that reminds me of a novel by Michael Morpurgo involving elephants.

The book is very readible, with short chapters, and much to say about school life and poverty. It is very descriptive and brings back old kiwi english with terms like cackhanded, which made me smile. Then there is the description of a current scone made by his aunt that is described as “not a food but a landform, something between a boulder and a cow pat”.

This novel would go well when read in conjunction with Tim Tipene’s White Moko which is reviewed earlier on this blog. This New Zealand in the raw.