WULF by Hamish Clayton

Review book kindly provided by Penguin Books New Zealand via Booksellers NZ

From its opening words this book grabs you by its visual imagery. That first page conjures up a land of power, secrets, strangeness, and above all the inevitability of terrible and frightening things about to happen. It is eerie reading this book. You know you are not, but it certainly feels as if you too are trekking through dense New Zealand native bush, wandering on a desolate sandy beach, sitting on a brig slightly off shore on gentle seas. And all the time knowing that you are a foreigner in this land, always with the sense that you are being watched and observed by the locals. Very uncanny.

At the center of this story is an unnamed crewman on the 'Elizabeth', an English ship that in this tale arrived in New Zealand waters in 1830 looking to trade with the Maori, specifically for flax. For such a man and his fellow crew members, this new land would not have resembled their homeland in any way. Neither would the bird life, the fish life, the plant life. Combine this with the tales about the land's fearsome inhabitants - warmongers, revenge-seekers, desirous of muskets, rumours of cannibalism - and the scariest of them all, the great chief Te Rauparaha, it is little wonder that the visitors are in such awe of this land.

On the 'Elizabeth' is a young man, Cowell, who joined the ship in Sydney. He has been to New Zealand before, can speak Maori fluently and is there to act as a middle man between the ship's captain and the Maori traders. He is also a marvellous story teller and over a period of time regales the mesmerised crew members with stories of the exploits and conquests of Te Rauparaha. Any New Zealand history book will tell you what an extraordinary man Te Rauparaha was, both in his ambitions and his brutality. Dubbed 'Napoleon of the South' he seemed to spend his whole life exacting revenge for many and various wrongs. Naturally the myths that had built up around this man were also many and various, being perfect fodder for the imaginations of the sailors. He became the Great Wolf, always there, watching and waiting for the right moment to attack.

Rumours of a huge load of flax coupled with the chief's desire for muskets eventually lead the 'Elizabeth' to Kapiti Island, Te Rauparaha's stronghold, lying just off the west coast of the lower half of the North Island. A waiting game begins, during which the tension slowly winds up notch by notch. You see, the Great Wolf is far cleverer than the white sea captain, resulting in a major clash of the two entirely different cultures. What is a moral and ethical dilemma for one is a perfectly acceptable negotiation and result to the other. The consequences are disastrous.

The 'Elizabeth' was a real ship, Cowell and Captain Stewart were real people, and the incident they all find themselves involved in did happen. This was only one of many encounters and clashes that the Pakeha visitor had with the local Maori. We generally learn about them through history books, objective and fact driven. Very rarely do we experience what it may have been like to encounter a people so different from oneself. And in a land that is so dramatic and awe-inspiring, and all the time threatening and unknown.

Reading this book is like reading poetry, but in a prose form. It is just so stunningly beautiful. Many New Zealand novels are dark, gothic and morbidly gloomy. This is not a happy tale either, but the writing is so full of colour and richness that it is almost as if it is all taking place in some sort of enchanted wonderland. Anybody with an interest in New Zealand history, or a love of the land will feel uncannily linked with this story and the people in it.

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