The Matriarch – Witi Ihimaera


Chosen by Jo

A man studies his grandmother, the matriarch of the family, to discover the source of her power

❝ Tama Mahana is a grown man analysing the mystique and ambition of his grandmother, the matriarch of his family. But to truely appreciate the paths she has taken, he must study Māori mythology and New Zealand history.

Tama is introduced at the beginning but is really only one thread of the book that holds together the various true stories of cultural clashes, wakapapa, and politics of the country and its people. It is clear the novel is steeped in true history.

All truth is fiction, really, for the teller tells it as he sees it, and it might be different from some other teller.

❝ This book weaves a fictional story together with historic Māori figures and their plights which provides the reader with some education around many issues of the Māori and Pākehā history. I learnt more about why land is so important and significant to Māori and the devastation that colonisation has caused. I never appreciated the extent of their spiritual connection to the land.

My favourite parts of the book however were the fictional parts. I particularly enjoyed the dialogue between characters and the bantering between Tama and his sisters. Ihimaera seems very skilled at bringing his characters to life; they certainly seemed like realistic people to me. – Jo

❝ An absolute masterpiece of a book. Honestly at times it was a bit of a slog to get through, but on reflection during our bookclub discussions I wondered was this because I was putting my Pākehā lens onto what was a Māori story? A challenging reflection.

The hour by hour account of the Te Kooti attack on the colonising European settlers on the East Coast was one of the most gripping passages of writing I think I have ever read. It will stick with me for a very, very long time.

I look forward to reading the follow-up novel The Dream Swimmer where hopefully we will learn more about the impact of the matriarch’s devotion to Tama. I am desperately hoping the outcomes will be only positive for his whānau. – Suzy

❝ It’s been a long time since I have reflected on NZ’s History. Witi Ihimaera’s The Matriarch gives us a mix of historical facts, fiction and mythology from our past which I found fascinating. It wasn’t until the end of the novel I could see the importance of the historical facts that seemed very long and arduous at times. Although the matriarch and other characters were fictional I felt I had a glimpse into what life was like in a traditional Māori family of the time.  – Jodie

❝ The retelling of colonial wars and land grabs can be a controversial topic. I think what Ihimaera has done in The Matriarch is effective as rather than be moralistic, he has portrayed the truth of the brutalities from both sides. Plus he has etched into the reader’s mind the importance of connections to the land, of spirituality and of histories, which provides context to the outcomes that eventuated for Māori. There are parts of the book that are long and arduous, others that are lively and full of dialogue, but many which are grounded in truth. For a real understanding of NZ history it is worth reading this book slowly and carefully. – Rachel


Published 1986
456 pages

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