Poetry Shelf summer reading: Lawrence Patchett’s The Burning River


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The Burning River Lawrence Patchett, Victoria University Press, 2019



Complete immersion in a novel is a wonderful thing. A precious thing. I have just spent the past few days inhabiting Lawrence Patchett’s The Burning River and it feels like I will carry this gripping book with me for a long time. It is exquisitely crafted, the sentences flow like honey, the rhythms are perfectly in tune with the subject matter. But it is the way this novel represents narrative as a form of listening that has affected me so much. It takes place in the unsettling and hazardous future of a re-imagined Aotearoa New Zealand. However, this strange and estranging future, with near dead rivers and herbs that heal, is dependent upon the author paying close and astute attention to our past. Especially to the past narratives of Māori and Pākehā, both entwined and in conflict. Different groups of people are connected by bloodlines, languages, cultural rituals and behaviours, and a fierce need to survive and protect family. The novel foreshadows the ominous state of the world, yet it offers hope, bridges, restorative moves. It maps the state of an individual heart. I am so affected as I read – reading is both despair and joy.

Let me say this again: I have never read a work of such acute listening, of attending to whānau language song trading nurturing nourishing planting remembering singing kõrero.

In his acknowledgements, Lawrence thanks Araon Randell  for assistance in making ‘the altered “patchwork” world of this world deeper and richer.’ The Burning River is like a patchwork quilt, comprising many luminous and connected pieces, stitched together with such caution, feeling, integrity, vulnerability, aroha, enduring mahi, attentiveness. It becomes a narrative quilt that you hold about your shoulders as you face a world that is burning and flooding, that is wounding and maiming, that is hungry and overfed, that is tending and loving.

I adore the presence of te reo because it is part of the fabric of the storytelling – not as an exercise, not as an exotic frill – but as an essential and uplifting belonging.

This novel is a significant arrival. Find a stretch of time and immerse yourself in its extraordinary currents. If you only read one book this month make it The Burning River. I have written this very small tribute off the cuff of finishing the book, in that half-mourning state where the real world seems unreal, because I still occupy the burning river, because now I am longing even more for everything to be good and fair and humane.


Ngā mihi nui Lawrence

thank you, thank you, thank you


Victoria University Press author page








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