On the face of it, Other Halves is a captivating love story about a mid-thirties woman’s love affair with a 16-year-old Maori boy. But beneath the fascinating mechanics of how it all worked – the hot sex, drugs, rehab and dawn raids – lies an important snapshot of political and cultural attitudes of late 1970s/early 1980s New Zealand. Soaring oil prices meant unemployment and inflation had increased, and by 1976 New Zealand was in recession. The Waitangi Tribunal had been established in 1975 giving Maori the right to seek compensation from the Crown for treaty breaches. Times were a-changing, but entrenched attitudes of ‘number-8-wire-fixes-anything’ and ‘those-bloody-Maoris’ were hard to break. Certainly a love affair between our two protagonists would have raised a few eyebrows at the time. Overlay this onto the larger picture: New Zealand is two small islands a million miles from anywhere, including its motherland, England.
Within this cultural and political framework, Liz (35 or so, Pakeha, middle class, separated, mentally-broken) meets Tug (16, Maori, illiterate, petty criminal, streetwise). Or should I say, author Sue McCauley meets her second husband Pat Hammond. The spot-on vernacular and the authentic lives and thoughts of the characters are too vivid not to have been personally lived through. This story is utterly heartfelt.
There were a few cultural cringe moments, such as the analogy about hunting crabs to illustrate the idea of their relationship distancing Tug from his inherent ‘Maoriness’. But this might be a case of changing attitudes thirty plus years later.
Other Halves is definitely, obviously New Zealand literature – it has that stark grittiness that epitomizes our most famous books and films (The Bone People, Once Were Warriors, and more recently The Dark Horse). I am interested to hear from any non-New Zealanders who read the book and what you make of it.
Unbelievably, there is only one other Goodreads review of Other Halves. It seems New Zealand and the world has largely forgotten this excellent book, despite it winning the 1983 NZ Fiction Book of the Year. I believe it is an important text for New Zealanders and should be studied at tertiary level. Read it.
This review also appears on Goodreads.com.