Review: Kōhine

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Linked through recurring characters and themes, the haunting stories in Kōhine hurtle us into the streets of Tokyo and small-town New Zealand. The secular city of salarymen, sex workers and schoolgirls is juxtaposed with rongoā healers, lone men and rural matriarchs of Aotearoa.

The first arresting thing about Kōhine is the cover.  The design of this pukapuka is well up to Huia Publishers’ usual very high standard; designer Te Kani Price deservedly just won a national award. But for me the moment I knew I was in for something special was in the opening sentence: ‘Slabs of sunlight fall, dust motes float like amoeba across the room.’ I remember looking up and seeing just such sunlight and dust in the room with me and feeling it transform into slabs and amoebas.

Kōhine is the debut collection of interlinked short stories from Te Rarawa, Ngāpuhi and Irish kaituhi (writer) Lenihan. It is the first pukapuka I have come across to weave together Māori and Japanese cultures. The story Leaping-off Place II is written in the second person to Aria, the girl on the cover, who is Māori and Japanese: ‘Voices summon you in Māori, which you don’t speak, but you can understand them, and you reply in Japanese and they can understand you. Instead of ‘ae’, you say ‘hai.’ Instead of ‘ahi’, you say ‘hi’.’ The stories are set in Tokyo, Tāmaki Makaurau and rural Aotearoa. We follow many characters told from different points of view but always return to Aria and her mother Maia.

At the heart of Kōhine is the death of teenage Aria, who dies falling from a balcony. At first, I thought the stories might work to reveal the mystery of why she fell but I quickly came to realise that wasn’t the point at all. This is a book about grief and the way the absence of the dead becomes a kind of presence. In Cherry Blossom Girl, set soon after Aria’s death, Aria comes to her father in a dream: ‘She doesn’t know she’s dead yet, but she’s okay.’

Meanwhile, ‘It was as if someone had taken a giant roller of paint and covered Maia completely in grey … the pressing need to make a living forced her to maintain the pretence that she wasn’t a shell of a human, a mere placeholder where the person Maia used to be.’ As Kōhine progresses we swoop and circle in time to Maia’s life before and after Aria’s death. Aria died in Tokyo and must make her way back to Aotearoa to Te Pua o te Rēinga to pass on to the next world.

My favourite characters in Kōhine are the crows of Shibuya who can guide the dead, known as The Crows That Shall Never Be Lost. Directions is from their point of view:

An old flightless shakes his puny talons at us. He is stooped and needs a stick to walk.

The old flightless says: You damn crows are a pest!

A crow says: You are weak and near death!

In her Radio New Zealand review, Michelle Rahurahu called Lenihan’s literary style Māori realist, which she describes as letting metaphor take shape on the page in a really tangible way whereby anything can happen. Lostness and found-ness; the living and the dead; the waking world and the spirit world; pain and humour; Lenihan weaves them all together. Overall - and I know this is like the third time I’ve said this - this year has seen pukapuka after pukapuka of absolute bangers from kaituhi Māori. Kōhine fits right in.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage