September 2008

Arts & Letters

‘Come On Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All’ by Christina Thompson

By Zora Simic

Growing up in land-locked Boston, Christina Thompson knew "almost nothing of the islands or the sea", but a steady diet of Victorian literature imbued her with a "feeling for the colonies". In her twenties, she moved to Melbourne to study Pacific literature. A holiday in New Zealand culminated in marriage and children with a Maori man named Seven (explanation provided) and an abiding fascination with Maori culture. These details go some way to accounting for why her new book has the arresting title Come On Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All, alongside the generic subheading An Unlikely Romance. But while a mixed marriage may lend itself to mixing genres, this blend of history and anthropology, travelogue and love story is not as successful as the romantic union that inspired it.

Thompson does a good job of pitching her history of Maori culture and New Zealand to a general audience. She muses on cross-cultural contact without ever losing a sense of the drama, tragedy and mutual transformation that marks colonialism. The first recorded European glimpse of New Zealand, "a large land, uplifted high", occurred in 1642, when two Dutch ships landed at the tip of the South Island, a site now marked in honour of the occasion as Murderers Bay. There would be no more European visitors for 127 years. One of the first, Captain Cook, developed a cautious respect for the Maori. Charles Darwin, visiting in 1835, was less enthusiastic, describing the country as a "land of cannibalism, murder, and all atrocious crimes". This is Thompson's cue to explain the title of her book, and, attentive to the pitfalls of cultural stereotyping and mistranslation, she does it well.

The author's family grows to five members, and we follow them around the world, from Melbourne to Hawaii and eventually to Boston (where Thompson is the editor of the Harvard Review). Interaction between cultures is given a personal and contemporary dimension that, while always intriguing, is never riveting. Part of the problem lies in the matter-of-fact descriptions of the early days of Thompson's romance with Seven. What drew her to him, and him to her? Without such details, Come On Shore sometimes falls flat, dependent on the reiteration of cultural encounters, rather than the profundity of everyday life, for its narrative punch.

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