Review: Kurangaituku

Reviewed by TK Roxborogh

Kurangaituku is brilliantly written. Clever. Precise. Prosaic but not cluttered. It expects you to be an intelligent consumer of words and images.

In the beginning, I did not fall into the world of this novel. Instead, I tentatively crawled along one strand of the web until I was stuck, pulled in by Kurangaituku's hypnotic narrative, and completely drawn into her world.  The way she spoke to me, convinced me of the why of her actions.

 [we] sup upon the experiences of others – how many lives have you tasted? Hundreds of lives and experiences to be lived and felt. A story lets you glimpse the world of the other – past, present, future – a life just waiting to be savoured. The lives I have consumed are countless. The lives you can live within stories are endless. Through story, I gift you my sight. I let you see this world as I see it.

This is her addressing any squeamishness we may have towards the way she conducts herself.

The last time I was so affected by a reading experience that it changed the way I thought about the rules of storytelling was when I first read Keri Hulme’s The Bone People. Hulme’s book and this novel, Kurangaituku by Whiti Hereaka (Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Te Arawa), both push against the conventional expectations of how to write and read a novel.

The text is constructed as two equal halves and, smack in the middle, the pūrakau Hatupatu and the Bird Woman. You can start the novel at either end but, was I supposed to begin with the black on white sketch of a half woman, half bird (the miromiro side) or the side with the white illustration on black background (the ruru side)? Turns out, according to the author and others, it doesn’t matter.

Your first task is to choose a side to begin reading. This initial act will contribute to the way in which you experience the book. Like me, you have to trust your instinct and Whiti Hereaka’s proven skill as a novelist and writer and go for it. Let this be a warning to you: you don’t get to be a passive consumer of this novel.

For the record, I started with the miromiro – an account of how Kurangaituku came into being:

Someone, somewhere, tells a story about you. In that act of storytelling, that person is not just talking about you but has actually created a you that exists in their story.

 We read of her interactions with the birds and the Song Makers (tāngata) then, her ‘adventures’ with the boy Hatupatu who names her. She is fascinated by him and the stories he tells which ultimately lead to her terrible death. The reader gets a brief interlude to read the pūrakau (myth). Probably unlike many people, I hadn’t heard of this narrative prior to reading the novel. No matter. I like to think it means I came to the story with no expectations or preconceived ideas. I’ve since learned that Hatupatu is the ‘hero’ and Kurangaituku is




However, there are at least two sides to any decent kōrero.  During a conversation with Pip Adam for the Aotearoa Art Festival, Hereaka said that “the tūī and the kākā sing different songs but they’re both the truth.  So, you know Hatupatu’s story is true and it’s well-loved for a reason – it’s framed as a hero’s story and is easy to tell across cultures [because] we love hero stories…  That story is richer if we think about the other strands of the story as well; other ways of telling it.”

Having read Kurangaituku’s ‘version’ of things first, I think I read the pūrakau with different eyes and was eager to flip over the novel to join her as she journeyed through Rarohenga (the underworld).  

The second part was more challenging for me to read. Maybe because I was experiencing a bit of grief at Hatupatu’s betrayal and Kurangaituku’s death. Happily, I didn’t get to wallow for long.

Kurangaituku’s escapades in the afterlife are full-on: there are places to go and people (Hatupatu) to find. She does get to enjoy a deliciously created sexual encounter with the beautiful Hine at the start. It was also particularly clever of the author to mimic a character’s strange way of speaking (Rohe, Māui’s wife), her lisping created with phonetic spelling. I couldn’t understand what I was reading so had to speak the words out loud: immediately it became clear what was said and I saw the reason for this choice of style: make me part of the storytelling; make me, the reader, necessary to the communication of the narrative.

Hereaka says she sees “…writing as an act of manaakitanga… our job as writers is to invite readers into our world and make them safe…[but] that it’s not all on the writer, that we have a relationship with the reader. So, the story is created between us.” She has succeeded.

After a number of quests, Kurangaituku ends this part deep inside a lava tube before being freed back into the world where, “Matariki was already rising and [she] could feel the chill air of winter.” The layout of the book allows you to read the Hatupatu account and, if you wish (I did), you could flip the book to re-read the miromiro part.

In the end, like all of us, Kurangaituku just wanted connection. She wanted to be wanted. To be loved. Maybe she didn’t get that from Hatupatu but I confess to falling a little in love with her by the end. Kurangaituku’s voice is strong and attractive, and it isn’t always clear whether she speaks to you directly or to Hatupatu. Maybe we are all her audience.

This is brilliantly written. Clever. Precise. Prosaic but not cluttered. It expects you to be an intelligent consumer of words and images. It deserves its inclusion as a finalist for the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. I wouldn’t be unhappy (or unsurprised) if it takes out the supreme award.

 Reviewed by TK Roxborogh