Cousins by New Zealand author Patricia Grace tells a story of three cousins growing up after the Second World War in New Zealand. At that time, many Maori had difficulties retaining their cultural identity as they migrated from the rural areas to the cities. The three cousins Mata, Makareka and Missy have different lives and experience very different upbringings and childhoods. What they have in common is that they are shaped by their belonging to an invaded people who struggle to preserve their own language and faith in their motherland.
As a young girl, Mata is led to believe that her mother has died, but in fact she left her family behind to start over. However, Mata’s mother soon becomes very ill and her family is unable to find Mata because she has already been handed over to the legal guardian who places her in an orphanage. Mata’s father is a Pakeha who is not there for her and abandons her. She frequently feels inferior and inadequate in the company of others. Another problem is that she is ashamed of her skin color and always feels out of place.
Makareta is brought up by her grandmother and grows up understanding her culture and speaking Maori and also English fluently. It is no problem for her to find her way in the two environments. She becomes highly influential in activist Maori circles after rejecting a marriage arranged by her grandmother. The way I read it, this is where her success comes from.
Missy was raised by her Māori whānau and grows up in poverty, which influences her schooling and other aspects of her life. At the same time, she grows up in a strong Maori community. Her grandmother punishes Missy’s mother because she married an unsuitable man in her eyes. Because her grandmother strongly adheres to traditions and her mother rejects them, Missy and her siblings are in constant conflict. Missy has difficulties finding her way outside her community, despite the support of her family.
The book begins with Mata walking barefoot on a street at night, with no belongings except for a photo of her mother. Her story is told from the child’s point of view and in the first-person perspective of an older version of Mata. Significant parts of the narrative focus on the difficult circumstances that shape her life in the orphanage. When Mata is ten years old, she accidentally discovers her resemblance to Makareta. The orphanage reluctantly allows her to spend three weeks of holidays with her family. When she arrives, everything is very different from what Mata had expected. Keita, her grandmother, gives her a photo of her mother. Missy’s mother, Glory, shows Mata her mother’s grave and her ancestors. She doesn’t feel she belongs anywhere and this conflict runs through the book.
The book shows the lives of Mata, Makareta and Missy, three Maori cousins. The chapters are told from multiple perspectives, so that you get to know the three cousins from various angles and at different ages. Only a few memories remain of their brief interlude together. Since then they have gone separate and very different ways, but they cross paths again later in the novel.
Cousins is a thought-provoking book that reflects profound themes, such as cultural, material and emotional deprivation and its effects. On the other hand, the feeling of community and closeness with nature is constantly present, which creates beautiful emotions. The community also includes the dead and the ancestors, who also are present to support the living in the present. The book and the fates described are touching and made me emotional. For example, Mata has to deal with loss of cultural roots, loss of language and even an absence her own (Maori) name.
Unfortunately, for the foreign reader it is hard to recognize the symbols of Maori culture which are presented. To really understand the meaning behind it, you need to have some kind of prior knowledge. Often the chapters are dragging and it becomes difficult to follow. As soon as you know the protagonists and can roughly understand what and why something is happening, it makes reading easier, but this took me a few chapters.
I recommend this book to anyone interested in New Zealand, Maori culture and/or general identity conflicts. It seems to be a good read for young people, but also adults of any age. In summary, Cousins teaches you to understand and compare different realities and shows how small decisions can change your life.