Huia, $35, pbk
Whiti Hereaka has in the past five years made a place for
herself as a playwright and film scriptwriter, with a number
of short plays and films to her credit, and more recently
with the full-length Te Kaupoi, winner of the 2010 Adam New
Zealand Play Award as the best play by a Maori playwright.
In the last four of those years she has also been working on
this, her first novel.
From this long gestation period has emerged a well-crafted
story bearing the mark of the accomplished playwright's hand
- a sequence of dramatic scenes involving the interplay of
dialogue between a limited number of characters and focusing
on the development of the young protagonist, January, through
her relationship with the older graphologist of the title,
When we first encounter January, she has a sorry past behind
her, revealed by what she writes of herself for Mae: her
attempt to move out from her family of origin to make her own
life had resulted only in an unhappiness expressed by her
body through a painful eczema, culminating in the "little
death" of walking fully clothed into the sea, an attempt to
wash away her eczema and old life and become a new person,
symbolised by changing her name to January.
Unfortunately, her January existence has been no real
improvement: a boring dead-end office job, a refusal to enter
into close human relationships, and a self-involved and
judgemental attitude to other people coloured by sexual envy
and a bitter cynicism.
Her only consolation and excitement come in a fantasy affair
with a married man on whom she spies, and the shoplifting of
some earrings coveted by the man's beautiful wife.
After she puts on the earrings, the eczema appears again.
In her desperation, January invades the life of Mae,
following up a card she sees tacked to a supermarket notice
She pushes to become Mae's apprentice, to learn the art of
reading character through handwriting, but instead of
developing the empathy that Mae thinks essential to the art,
January misuses the graphological knowledge and incorporates
it into her fantasy affair.
Learning empathy and getting outside her own fantasies and
judgements comes only when Mae catches her writing love
letters to herself as if they were from her "lover", and
their relationship reaches a crisis point that moves January
January's development is neatly done, with a nice handling of
plot and point of view: we at first see mainly through
January's eyes, but as the relationship develops, the point
of view moves back and forth between the two women and we can
see Mae coming to understand January more fully and January
not reciprocating in understanding until the crisis forces
However, the pattern is a bit too neat: January's conversion
is not as convincingly shown as is her earlier destructive
self-involvement and self-deception.
The last part of the novel feels more like a well-made play,
where all is resolved, than like a novel depicting human
complexity and contradiction from within.
But the book is immensely readable, with a vivid and
economical language and a fine control of structure - a
promising debut novel from a writer from whom we shall hear
• Lawrence Jones is an emeritus professor of English.