Once Were Warriors – Alan Duff (1990)

These were some of the adjectives used to describe the book contents on its back cover (the edition that I had):

“starkly realistic… a searing look…harrowing vision…prose that is both raw and compelling…squalor and violence…wounds…unblinking realism…irresistible energy and great sorrow…”

So I feel that I went into this reading fully aware that it wasn’t going to be all sparkly unicorns and rainbows. However, the compelling literary power of this novel was truly amazing and although it was gritty realism, it was extremely well written. I have not read much similar to this level of writing for a long time, and although it’s not an easy read, it’s an unforgettable read.

Set in a small New Zealand town, it’s the story of a neighborhood and a Maori family who live in the squalid world of Pine Block, an area rampant with unemployment and alcoholism, of lives with no way out. Each chapter is written from a PoV that varies as the book progresses; sometimes it’s one of the parents, sometimes it’s one of the kids, and sometimes it’s omniscient, but whoever it is, it’s a searing look at a life of poverty and substance abuse, of violence and tragedy. The endless cycle of hopelessness that is the ongoing thread through this novel is relentless, but it’s the writing itself that makes the actual reading experience the powerful exercise that it is.

“[It was] an endless loop of hopelessness… Grace never saw forever in its positive sense. It was inconceivable that something good could last forever, or even a lifetime. A long time even. Just didn’t happen to a girl from Pine Block…”

I had tried to read this earlier in the year, but had struggled with it so had put it back on the TBR pile. Having recently ingested a steady diet of fairly positive stories, I was ready to re-read this one, as a palate cleanser if you will.  And wow. It’s like washing your mouth out with harsh ammonia.

With each chapter reflecting a particular point of view of one of the main characters in a stream-of-consciousness fashion, the reader begins to learn why the family members choose the decisions they did – it allowed me (as the reader) to become more closely engaged with this troubled family and, although I might not agree with their choices, through this POV format, I was more sympathetic to them. It reminded me in some (very different ways) of The Stone Angel (Margaret Laurence) which also features an unlikeable protagonist whose personal choices are bewildering to people who don’t have access to her thought process. It’s an enlightening writing technique that works really well when it’s written effectively, and it’s done well here.

It’s a bildungsroman in some ways – a coming-of-age novel for its characters who have to learn the (very) hard way about life choices: alcohol, overwhelming poverty, hopelessness, gang violence… But it’s also a novel of positive changes (minute as they may be at times) and reflects the reality that change arrives when it does, slowly and after hard work and multiple baby steps.

This is an intense read and is not for the faint-hearted. The language is a bit rough around the edges and there is significant violence, but I can’t imagine this being written in any other way – the life is very tough so the language just reflects that.

There was a section early on in the novel when the family (most of them) attends a traditional Maori funeral in the mother’s home town. Duff’s description of this ancient ritual is extremely poignant as it shows a family member being exposed for the first time to the historical Maori cultural traditions. It is incredibly moving of how the family (and the community) reacts to this sadness, and there are huge blocks of raw descriptions that pull the reader’s insides out as the writing is so powerful. The PoV allows the reader to be truly engaged in this emotional experience of characters who are living lives of desperation with no obvious escape. It’s heart-breaking.

It takes a tragedy to act as a catalyst to bring change to the family and the neighborhood, and change is realistically presented as a gradual process, not the Instant Change that tends to happen in Hollywood movies. It is really well done.

There are numerous references to Maori historical cultural traditions and the importance (culturally) of the idea of being a Warrior against invaders (and the Whites). One could argue that this population is still fighting, but now the enemies are different and more nebulous: poverty, unemployment, abuse… (This book also reminded me of that new Zealand-ish film called “The Whale Rider”…  Note: Very sad.)

One character ends up unable to resist the Siren call of the local gang, the Brown Fists. They see themselves as warriors, but in the end, their real enemy is themselves. By positioning themselves as “us vs. them” (and “them” means a variety of things), they rationalize their street violence. One can probably recognize some of these same traits for gang membership as the gangs in the U.S.: wanting to belong, to have a family they can rely on (or at least one that has predictable rules and violence)…

“…that feeling that something, someone had done this to her; this sense of having been not deprived but robbed of a life, growing stronger in her more and more tormented mind…”

A superb read. Not an easy read, but definitely superbly done.

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