Review —The Space Between by Lauren Keenan

Reviewed by Carole Brungar

“I feel as though I stepped through a portal to glimpse the poverty and hardship experienced in an 1860s Taranaki settlement on the brink of the New Zealand Wars.”

 In the first of our series of reviews by LIANZA members, romance author and Horowhenua College library manager, Carole Brungar reviews The Space Between by Lauren Keenan.

Wow, I finished Lauren Keenan's debut novel, The Space Between, in record time, and it's as though I have taken part in a gripping New Zealand history lesson. I feel as though I stepped through a portal to glimpse the poverty and hardship experienced in an 1860s Taranaki settlement on the brink of the New Zealand Wars.

The story is told through the eyes of two women: English-born and raised Frances Farrington forging a new life in New Plymouth, and wāhine Māori Matāria White who has been cast out by her whānau. In the wake of her father's death in London, Frances learns the family are destitute. Her brother George sells everything valuable and shepherds them onto a boat bound for the settler colony of New Plymouth in New Zealand. Matāria's story begins when she is taken as a child and forced into slavery. When she returns to Taranaki years later with a Pākeha man for a husband and two children from their marriage, she is shunned because she no longer belongs, and she questions her own identity. Does she follow the Māori customs or the Pākehā ways? Where should her trust lie? Who bears responsibility for the trouble between Māori and the settlers? And more importantly, are they responsible for enticing Tūmatauenga, the God of war, to the Taranaki?

I fell in love with these characters, willing them to overcome their hardships in what I imagine was a realistic portrayal of a colonial settlement during those times. I felt the surge of unease with the swell of British troops as the conflict played out while tensions grew between Frances and her brother, George, and Matāria and her sister, Atarangi.

I loved how the story shifted from one point of view to the other. Contrasting imagery colours the story as it moves between the stifling four-roomed home of the pretentious Mrs Farrington and her obnoxious son, to the open papakāinga at the base of Paraitutu Rock with its kumara storehouses and Matāria's whare and chair with the dog feet. The two lifestyles could not be more different, but as I was drawn into the story, I realised the lives of Frances and Matāria were more similar than I initially thought. Each had to overcome prejudice, each character found themselves caught in an uncomfortable space where neither fit in.

"Some things are best said when you can let the words flow freely without having them mirrored back in another person's eyes” writes Keenan.

Before reading The Space Between, my knowledge of the Taranaki wars was minimal, but thanks to Keenan's brilliant descriptions, sound knowledge of the time, and clever world-building, I now feel compelled to learn more. If you're a fan of authors such as Deborah Challinor or Jenny Pattrick, you certainly won't be disappointed with Lauren Keenan's The Space Between. Highly recommended!

Reviewed by Carole Brungar

Carole Brungar is a multi-award winning NZ author of 20th century NZ historical fiction. She is a member of LIANZA and is Library Manager of Horowhenua College.