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This review is taken from PN Review 59, Volume 14 Number 3, January - February 1988.

BONED-UP PEOPLE Witi Ihimaera, The Matriarch (Heinemann) £10.95

Reading The Matriarch is like grappling with a cross between the Old Testament and Mario Puzo's Mafia novels, with begats and bloody battles alternating in hectic profusion, opulent and operatic characters and settings clamouring for our attention, and a majestic mythicality underpinning the elemental ferocity of individual actions. Tama, the narrator, is a middle-aged Maori (born, like his author, in 1944) who has made good in his profession (we do not learn what this is, but Ihimaera is a diplomat, currently New Zealand consul in New York, and Tama is mobile and urbane). The narrative set in Tama's lifetime, in the 1960s and 1970s, shows him meeting a challenge to his family supremacy as eldest son and triumphing over the bastard would-be claimant Toroa. Intercut with this is a narrative that describes the turbulent life and character of Tama's grandmother Artemis Riripeti Mahana, the matriarch of the title, a formidable termagant whose birth coincides with the eruption of a volcano, who rules family and tribe with an iron hand, who has a mysterious ability to command eclipses and spiders, who learnt to fence in Venice, and who thinks nothing of taking an axe to the meeting-house door when she is locked out. Tama's childhood memories are of being driven in the matriarch's Lagonda from one tribal meeting to the next, his ears full of Maori myth and history. Other characters in a far-flung family play important parts, in particular Tama's mother Tiana (who has given her name to a ...


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