Title: The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965

Author: Joan Stevens

Publication details: Reed Publishing (NZ) Ltd, 1966

Digital publication kindly authorised by: Sylvia Johnston

Part of: New Zealand Texts Collection

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The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965

Affairs of Men

Affairs of Men. Errol Brathwaite has published four novels since Fear in the Night. He won the Otago Daily Times competition with An Affair of Men, 1961, in which a Japanese patrol searches for Allied airmen shot down in the Solomon Islands. Captain Itoh is blocked in his efforts by Sedu, headman of a native Christian community. The "affair" between them exploits conflict and suspense at both moral and physical levels. This novel was followed in 1964 by Long Way Home. Here, too, there is an "affair of men", the drama of searchers and rescued in a mountain aircrash in the South Island. This novel was Brathwaite's first attempt, it seems, and already shows the lines of his development, his economy of characterisation, his page 124 familiarity with technical processes, gadgets, and skills, and his interest in the belief and behaviour of men on their own. His fourth novel, The Flying Fish, 1964, pursues the same matters in a historical setting, that of the Taranaki wars of the 1860s.

Perhaps of all our subjects this of the Maori wars is the most intractable, and in spite of fine gifts as a novelist Brathwaite has not quite conquered the ground. He follows the career of a settler, Phipps, who joins von Tempsky's commando unit; through a Maori friend Matiu, we enter rather shallowly the Maori experience. The strength of The Flying Fish lies in its handling of military detail—weapons, strategy, manoeuvre in manuka groves and flaxswamps, stockade and homestead. The reader begins to realise what these indeterminate skirmishes felt like to those who lived through them. Brathwaite makes a genuine imaginative penetration into material that usually stimulates our writers only to romantic rhetoric or fiendish bloodbaths. The historical basis of the book is discussed by Dennis McEldowney in Landfall, December 1964.

Brathwaite has now followed it with the second of the planned trilogy, The Needle's Eye, 1965, which takes Major Williams, a minor personage in the first volume, into the Waikato war of 1863-1864. The military detail is again authoritative, and Brathwaite develops further the theme of the moral and personal problems men meet in these "affairs". His work in these two novels represents a real advance in our serious historical fiction.