I chose to read this novel because it received international awards when published in 1984, because it rated a 4.06 in goodreads.com--a very high score--and because I'd never read a work of fiction about New Zealand's aboriginal people. The story is narrated in first person by a woman who appears white but has some aboriginal blood, an artist who deeply associates with native traditions, and we first meet her living alone in a tower she designed and built herself with friends in a spiral form sacred to aborigines: the chambered nautilus so fascinating for all of us, and so often repeated throughout nature.
She lives alone; something in her has broken, and she finds herself unable to paint or draw at all. She's been disconnected from her family as a deliberate point of will for some time, but the point has proven a psychic hara-kiri from which she suffers daily.
One day she sees a boy in her window, a window higher than any boy should be. Gradually she comes to know him, even though she fairly despises children. This boy cannot talk. His complexion is fair and his hair, white blond, falls below his shoulders. He appears to be about seven years old physically but has the bearing or spirit, the indescribable something, of an old man.
Eventually, she meets the man this boy knows as father, a full aborigine--so he can't be the boy's natural father. Like many disaffected peoples who suffer diaspora and discrimination, the man is struggling in life, financially and spiritually. He yearns for ancient traditions even while deliberately estranging himself from them. He drinks too much beer. But the artist and the man share a connection through the boy. Over time, they begin to act essentially as a family, although the artist is clear from the beginning they can never have a sexual relationship. She doesn't need or want sex.
Catastrophe forces her to face visceral horrors that break them up in every conceivable way.
Then reality and science begin to interweave with an alternate, mystic reality. The future and the past begin to coalesce, rising separately then intermingling, like smoke from different, nearby fires. Life progresses from one home to another as the characters and their story grow, leaving one home for the next, and the one after that, as the entire tale begins to form the familiar construct of a chambered nautilus, in which the animal inside accretes section by section as it grows and expands.
I loved this story first for its tough, sophisticated, and modern intellectual assessments. I loved it for its grittiness. Then I hated its grittiness but was intrigued by the shift into mysticism. Finally, I was inspired.
Where the spoken language is aboriginal, please be sure to refer to the glossary at the back of the book for the translation. I didn't realize there was a page-by-page translation until quite late, and I found it worthwhile to go back and read again with better understanding. Perhaps for this reason there is no Kindle version of the book.
This novel is for folks who understand that all who wander are not lost. It is for seasoned readers eager to leap into a willing suspension of disbelief. For well-reasoned people capable of feeling their souls expand when they give up the need to decipher.