The Literature Hub
Reviewed by Ashleigh
Author: Patricia Grace
Publisher & Pages: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 256 pages
Blurb: One of Patricia Grace's best-loved novels about three girls and what happens as they grow up. Cousins is a stunning novel of tradition and change, of the whanau and its struggle to survive, of the place of women in a changing world. It is an engrossing story that runs on in the head long after it has finished. Makareta, Missy and Mata are the three female cousins of one of Patricia Grace's most popular novels. Moving from the forties to the present, from the country to the protests of the cities, Cousins is the story of three girls once thrown together and as women grown apart.
Read time: I couldn’t bring myself to finish it.
Caution: This is NOT an easy read.
Caution: The constant swapping of point of views and timelines will give you a headache.
Review: This book, it took me forever to get into. I read the first few pages a while ago and put the book down for about two weeks. I hated it. I couldn't understand what was going on, who was talking, or what time this was taking place. This book bored me so much, I left it until two days before I had to take it back to the library. TWO days. That's bad.
First off, we start with Mata. This is what tripped me up and put me off the book at first. Why? Because in parts of the book, she is called May. What also confused me is the structure of the book. Some chapters are a page long, others, up to eight or more. And the voice Mata uses, it's like she's a child trapped in an old woman's body. She seems more mature as a child than she does as an adult. I don't know whether the book is meant to be written like this as a way of commenting on old age or lack of education or something else, but the book just doesn't sit well with me. Mata just watches, waiting, watching life go by. She does what she's told, when she's told, without questioning why she's doing it. She's such a passive character, and that makes me think if she is representation of homeless or uneducated people.
Next up, is Makareta. This is where the book trips you up once more, with a switch from third person into first. I can't see a reason for it, and books like this really annoy me. On the positive side, we're getting into the head of someone important, Makareta's mother. Makareta is Mata's cousin, if the title didn't already clue you in on that fact. Right off, we start with an argument of Makareta. She's four, nearly five, and her mother wants to go to Wellington to be with her sister. But Makareta's paternal grandparents won't allow it. To me, this seems ridiculous. Makareta's father is dead, which leaves her mother full custody. The way the grandparents think that they can order her mother around grates on my nerves. They seem controlling, but in a way almost fearful. They don't want to lose their only grandchild. Fair enough, but it's not their decision to make whether she grows up in a city or in a small town. This seems like a comment to me, about family ties, and the pressure to not let down your elders and respect them. In modern times, this sort of behaviour wouldn't be acceptable.
In a discussion between Polly (Makareta's mother) and two woman named Gloria and Keita after Polly gives birth, Gloria talks about wanting to see her sister, Anihera, who if I remember correctly is Mata's deceased mother. It seems as if Anihera has been disowned by her family, because Gloria seems so sure that Anihera is her sister, but Keita assures her there is no such person, but we know there is from the Mata section of the book.
Makareta's mother also talks about feeling as if she has nothing in common with her husband Rere in the days after her baby's birth. It's a comment on either post-natal depression or the callousness or ignorance of men in the forties after they had married and successfully procreated. It gets sad later on in the book, with the strong family ties coming into play again. Instead of keeping her own daughter, Polly is forced to let Makareta go 'home' with Keita, away from her mother. Polly is needed in the city, caring for her sister's children as well as her sick sister.
So far, I can tell why Makareta is 'the chosen one - carrying her families hopes." She is the favoured grandchild, of what I assume is the favourite son. Makareta is put on a pedestal by her family, which for me seems really wrong. Makareta is a child, not someone you can mould into what you want them to be. The situation with Makareta reminds me of a storyline on Home and Away, where a young woman named Tasha is chosen as the 'chosen one' by a group of insane people called the 'Believers'. They force her to do what they want, even if it goes against her wishes. I doubt Makareta's grandparents would do that, but they seem just as controlling as the psychotic Mumma Rose (the leader of the Believers) so I'm not inclined to like the family right away. I also get the sense that Polly, although grateful for her husband's family taking her in and treating her like a daughter, resents her husband’s parents because of their controlling nature.
I think the book also comments on the nature of society in the forties, during wartime.
“But at that time on the crowded wharf I had no belonging, no part in any ceremony, no place in the customs to do with receiving the dead home. I was not a wife, a widow, or a bereaved daughter-in-law, but an onlooker, and I realised then that I should've returned to be with Keita and the families to receive the deaths of Rere and Hori according to custom.”
So really, what Patricia Grace is commenting on is the way society viewed you back then, compared to now. Back then, you couldn't mourn because you felt bad, sorrowful or sympathetic. If you weren't family, you didn't count. In this quote, I think Polly feels that without her daughter, without her husband's family, she has no right to be sad, no right to be in the city mourning the many dead people that she never knew. Nowadays, the whole world mourns for a tragedy such as 9/11 or the Boston Bombings, or the Christchurch earthquake. Back then you were shunned if you had no direct relation to anyone involved. Nowadays, nobody cares about that.
I still don't fully enjoy the book, but I certainly enjoy Polly's narration. She is easy to relate to, always trying to please everybody, even at her own expense. I suppose shy people will relate more to Mata, while people under pressure will identify more with Polly and Makareta, and cautious, careful and perceptive people will feel closer to Missy.
There's so much in this novel that Miss Grace comments on, too much for one review. It seems as though when she was writing the novel, she had many pet peeves, or she could have been an observer like Missy, with so many ideas that she just had to write them down. I'm still not too keen on the book, as every time I think I understand, it throws me another curveball and I get confused again, but you cannot doubt Miss Grace's ability to write a book that raises so many questions and comments about life in the past.
Star Rating: ½ Star
Available in: Paperback, eBook, Audiobook