BOOK REVIEW / A dark down under: 'The House of Strife' - Maurice Shadbolt: Bloomsbury, 16.99

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The Independent Culture
NEW Zealander Maurice Shadbolt shares his subject-matter - 19th-century white colonisation - with Patrick White (Australia) and J M Coetzee (South Africa), but has not so far matched their genius for archetypal characters capable of showing us fear in a handful of dust. Nevertheless, in his new novel the Technicolor exploits which have justly earned him plaudits as a storyteller have been selected with a keener, more rigorous eye, and the result is thought-provoking.

Although presented as the final title in his New Zealand Wars trilogy, The House of Strife can be taken independently; the reputation theme is lightly sketched in Monday's Warriors but the dramatic action pre-dates Season of the Jew (Book One), and the characters are unrelated.

Ferdinand Wildblood, our narrator, doubles as Henry Youngman, writer of stirring South Sea yarns; accused of plagiarism, he flees London for New Zealand - the locale of his fiction. Experienced Shadbolt readers will recognise an unwise move. Youngman tales are devoured in the colony, not least by John Heke, Maori chief, Christian and warrior, determined to honour all his callings - even more determined to star in his own Youngman epic. Henry is commandeered as scriptwriter. A flagstaff with Union Jack offers Heke the perfect adversary: 'It neither bruises nor bleeds. Better still, it does not cry out in pain.' British Imperialism takes a different view, however, and Wildblood/Youngman must scuttle between camps, hoping to orchestrate farce rather than tragedy. At the same time, he must protect his own rear from the Reverend Williams, whose nubile ward, Angela, has proved to be much less shy with men than anyone expected.

War has engrossed Shadbolt's fiction, but thoughtfully so. Fairweather in Season of the Jew defines it as 'something which enables men to feel important'; cruelty and heroism have never in his work been the preserve of one party only, yet his almost Chaucerian acceptance and enjoyment of folly, his concurrence with Finn McCool's maxim that 'the sweetest sound in the world is the music of what happens', have salved it of much of its sting. In The House of Strife there is a darkening of mood; no Bible-reading Maori quotes Shadbolt's hallmark proverb: 'A merry heart doeth good like a medicine.' This war offers few occasions for glory or comradeship, and, through the device of the narrator/

instigator, shows how much of what we take for historical truth is merely myth, lies and wishful thinking.

Searching for a definitive narrative Shadbolt returns to his preoccupation at the end of The Lovelock Version - 'Existence, clearly, is more than the sum of its parts' - but concludes by convicting 'The Author of All Things' of writer's cramp: 'Perhaps the effort of fancying humankind upon this planet, and then filling the sky with sun, moon and stars, proved his downfall. He hasn't the dimmest notion of what to do with us next. So here we are, blundering about brutally, killing our own kind and often our own kin,

waiting on him to resume his knotty narrative.'