Thursday, May 6, 2010

Pod girl

I've been listening pretty quickly lately, which is why I'm three books behind, so I'm not sure how good my retention is. The Whale Rider was another audiobook picked up while browsing and I probably wouldn't have listened but for the fact that my precedessors on Amazing Audiobooks had placed it on their 2006 list of bests. It was, of course, made into a most amazing movie before it became an audiobook. The short novel is by Witi Ihimaera and it is every bit as touching and powerful as it was on the screen.

Eight-year-old Kahu has been struggling all her life with her grandfather's disappointment that she was not born a boy. (If I'm remembering correctly, Kahu is a boy's name.) Her grandfather, leader of their Maori community, was hoping for someone to properly carry on their clan's traditions and that someone needs to be male. As Kahu grows up, is clear to everyone but her grandfather than she is perfectly suited to become chief. But it is only when a pod of whales -- descendents of the same whales who, legend tells, first brought the Maori to New Zealand on their backs -- beaches itself that Kahu's connection to her ancestors becomes clear.

Unlike what I remember of the movie, Kahu's story is told by her young uncle, Rawiri (who sounds like Arnold Spirit Jr. in the way he balances his ancient culture and his modern life, and with how casually he mentions racial violence), and so it is narrated by an adult-sounding man named Jay Laga'aia (a semi-famous actor, depending on how geeky you are). He has a very pleasant voice and trips from English to Maori, from cranky grandfather to innocent Kahu to his own young-adult-male rhythms very easily. He has a terrific time humorously voicing grandfather's wife, the bossy and irreverent Nanny Flowers, who is always threatening to leave her husband over his treatment of Kahu. Nanny is the comic relief of this story, but you never doubt her profound love for her granddaughter in Laga'aia's interpretation.

Laga'aia's narration never overpowers Ihimaera's lyrical descriptions of the coastal community, the sea, and the Maori legends. His resonant voice is a neutral conduit that lets the words speak for themselves. In the it-would-have-been-nice-but-it's-not-necessary department: The novel moves from Uncle Rawiri's first-person narration of the events surrounding the birth and childhood of Kahu to a more sweeping third-person telling of the clan's origins, as well as what happens to Kahu when she heads out to sea on that whale. Laga'aia's voice or pacing doesn't dramatically change when the narrative voice does, and I would have liked to hear something that tells me that a different story is beginning. But that's really a quibble.

I think it had been long enough since I'd seen the movie that the images in my head while listening were mostly pretty generic. And Rawiri's point of view is an entirely different one than the movie. So, it didn't feel like a repeat to me; instead it was a fresh take on a story that I had heard once before. It's worth listening to.

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