Secrets of the Land

Kate Mahony
Cloud Ink Press


Taranaki-raised writer Kate Mahony returns to her childhood territory with her debut novel Secrets of the Land. What began as a short story broadened into a full-length work that spans the 1860s through to the present. It travels through Ireland and England to New Zealand, where both contemporary and centuries-old grievances come together.

Mahony has drawn on an ancestor for the character of a soldier in the Taranaki Militia, yet this is only a starting point. Like some of the made-up place names, this soldier is a work of fiction. However, the historical background of the New Zealand Wars, and the devastating impact of violent colonialism, is real enough.

The novel opens in 2018, where Imogen Maguire is confronted by a stranger on a Melbourne street. The strange little man insists Imogen go to New Zealand to help her endangered grandfather, Jack. Imogen is startled not only by the messenger's appearance, for he is reminiscent of Rumpelstiltskin, but also his message. It is news to her that her grandfather is alive. Her mother Aoife, a free-spirited Irishwoman, maintains only slight contact with her, and even less contact with the past. There is much estrangement. Both Aoife's father, and Imogen's own, are almost mysteries. While it is told from Imogen's point of view, it could have been interesting to have her mother's perspective on events as well.

Imogen decides to follow the precarious leads. Here the action moves to farmland beneath Mount Taranaki. Many local characters bring their idiosyncrasies into the scene. Some are wholeheartedly stubborn in their outlook, and Imogen is always aware of her distance.

She has been a city girl over the waters, with successful careers in publishing and journalism. Though she is delving into her own heritage, she also looks through journalistic eyes. She knows that she will have to dig, in order to pull out actual biographical and historical detail.

Through both interactions with locals and the landscape, Imogen begins to get a sense of the region. Here the past refuses to stay dormant. She increasingly feels a sense of haunting, but one that is not straightforward.

Mahony fills the background slowly and deliberately, with a few figures who refuse to be defined or pinned down. In this way her work carries strands of magical realism, mimicking the supernatural world of Irish legend. Somehow this works, and the reader can suspend disbelief as it is a gentle overlay rather than forced into the narrative. Along with this is a firm sense of place in the contemporary New Zealand setting.

Mahony goes beyond this though, carefully linking Irish heritage and the brutal effects of their repression with that here in New Zealand. As Imogen works to untangle the roots of the campaigns against her grandfather, her own ancestry becomes clearer. What on the surface began as a straightforward mystery novel turns into a much more layered, complex piece through Mahony's careful plotting. Secrets of the Land is confident in leaving some ambiguous areas, while being an engrossing and thoroughly evocative work.

Jessie Neilson is a University of Otago library assistant