REVIEW: “A Dangerous Vine” by Barbara Ewing
Virago Press Ltd., 2000
CHALLENGE(S): Year of the Historical Challenge
Finished 22 Jan 2010
I’ve been wanting to read this book for a few months now. I’m not sure quite what it was that intrigued me about it – I do have an idea for a novel of my own that is very similar, but I think it was more my fascination with this particular period of my country’s history that drew me to the story.
It’s set in New Zealand during the 1950’s, centering around the social exploits of one Margaret Rose Bennett, who has just turned eighteen. She has just started university and a new job at the Ministry, and is struggling to find herself in a family and society that is unwilling to allow her to be anything except a dutiful daughter, and eventual wife and mother. Margaret’s first rebellion begins with learning Maori, a “dying” language that is denigrated because it is only spoken by the Maori people. It is here that she begins to learn about love and it’s many different forms and it is here that she meets her eventual lover, a young Maori lawyer who is himself struggling to find his place between the Pakeha (European) and Maori worlds. The novel explores not only the social constraints placed on women during the period but also the attitude of both Maori and European to the land and each other.
This is the sort of book it takes a while to warm up to; it starts off slowly, setting the scene, and consequently a certain distance is felt between the reader and the characters. Gradually this is eroded, however, as bit by bit the narrative reveals more about their emotional and material struggles in a time that is not so distant from our own. Building upon the initial landscape, the stories of several different individuals are skillfully woven together until they reach an explosive climax at the end. Although the writing is somewhat simplistic in places, and the author occasionally relies on cliches where something original would have served the story better, it is masterfully timed and tightly plotted, keeping you enthralled from the beginning. A new and unexpected favourite that I feel quite proud of, in an odd sort of way. It is so seldom that writing from my own country speaks to me in such a way.