Kurangaituku – Whiti Hereaka


A contemporary retelling of traditional Māori folklore.

Kurangaituku is the story of Hatupatu told from the perspective of Kurangaituku, the bird woman. The traditional story is told from the view of Hatupatu. He is out hunting and is captured by the bird woman who imprisons him in her cave in the mountains. Hatupatu eventually escapes, though he is pursued by Kurangaituku and evades her by leaping over hot springs. Kurangaituku falls into them and perishes.

In this contemporary retelling, Kurangaituku’s life is giving more meaning that of just being a monster. We learn about the birds who sang her into being, her life with Hatupatu, her death and her subsequent wanderings through the underworld searching for justice. Through the eyes of Kurangaituku, we come to see how being with Hatupatu changed her, emotionally and in her outlook and behaviours, and how devastating their separation is.

The book is split into three parts, with two sections printed tete-beche (upside down from one another). One, starting at the light coloured cover, tells the story of the bird-woman as she lived with Hatupatu. The story which starts from the dark coloured cover tells the story of Kurangaituku in the underworld. The middle section is told twice, each version upside down from the other, and is the traditional retelling for those who were not familiar with it.

The love shown to language and story telling allows the reader to feast on the phrasing and to devour the story, just as Kurangaituku devours life.

I was a creature trapped somewhere between bird and Song Maker. My face was covered in the same pale skin as my chest. The feathers on my head started high on my forehead, mimicking the hairlines of my Song Maker creators. I kept the beak of the kōtuku bu the position of my eyes had changed. Was I hideous or beautiful? I had never asked myself that before, but now I couldn’t stop the thought. Until that moment I suppose I had no ego. At least no idea that my curiosity ought to be focused on myself.

❝ This novel was raw, visceral and beautiful. Partway through I started crying and didn’t know why as it wasn’t a ‘sad’ part – it is just so beautifully written and is gut punch after gut punch. The language felt poetic throughout. 

I felt weirdly unworthy of being an ‘observer’ of such a momentous and massive storyline. What right did I have to be enmeshed within these events?

I found it hard going. My capacity for the understanding of the reverse stories was limited and at times I felt like the cleverness was beyond me. I guess I need to feel like a book is within my reach and this was a barrier to me fully immersing myself within it. I need to attempt it a second time where I can give it undivided attention. I would be unsurprised if Kurangaituku won! It is stunning. – Suzy

❝ Novels based on folklore can be difficult to like if you’re not familiar with the history. And while, yes, knowing the story of Kurangaituku and Hatupatu helps with this book, you can just as equally love it for the unique contemporary character created by Hereaka.

Her examination of identity and understanding of those who are different is strong. Kurangaituku is half woman, half bird searching for acceptance and love. She is fallible but reasoned, not simply the monster the original fable makes her out to be.

What’s more important than the plot though, is the mellifluous writing style Hereaka possesses. Though I didn’t always understand how all the parts of the plot came together, I was captured by how beautifully the book was written and how as a reader we were encouraged to feel a part of the story telling. This is clearly an important book about NZ history and modern explorations of identity and as such I can see it being relevant for a long time. – Rachel


Published 2021
Huia Publishers
350 pages

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