Baby No-Eyes was first published in 1998 by Penguin and was Patricia Grace’s fourth novel. It is a splendidly complex story that unabashedly addressed many social issues in Aotearoa, including domestic violence, The Treaty of Waitangi, land claims, hospital mix-ups, treatment of Maori and Maori culture.
Baby No-Eyes is the journey of one family from birth to death, and a boy who is haunted by his sister’s ghost. Tawera is searching for answers and understanding but to achieve this, his mother and grandmother must cover the reaches of the past and the present, revealing secrets and brokenness. The story is a non-linear telling by several members of the same family (whanau in Maori culture includes the neighbours and friends that are closely involved, not just blood ties).
The different points of view offer a richness to the past and present that is entwined and tangled, sometimes related and sometimes not. Each narrative offers an ‘aha’ moment of piecing together another answer. The sequence is occasionally confusing but only if you overthink it, if you can read with an open heart and an acceptance and trust in Grace’s knack for pulling together all the yarns and history, the book has a satisfactory conclusion. The characters are well developed to elicit understanding and empathy from the reader for their actions, even when they make poor decisions, and the settings described are distinctly New Zealand. Grace uses a lot of broken sentences and short sentences to propel the story and dialogue at times, which is usually very effective at conveying urgency, realistic conversations with differing viewpoints, and only sporadically confusing. The only weakness I found was the lack of focus on solving the eye issue, which I understand was based on real events, and I felt that there was no conclusion on this topic.
I love the way that the present has links to the past, the entwining of hurts in history that impact today. Also how Grace draws upon Kura’s experiences on motherhood and pregnancy and passes that support and knowledge onto her mokopuna.
“These weren’t her last words. Her last words were whispered – mumbling, complaining, urgent, and what sounded like swearing – into Tawera’s rocking ear.”
I was inspired by the way Grace has described historic grievances in a way that is relevant to today and in a way that draws empathy from the reader. In particular, how many of these issues were topical when the novel is written and how Grace then pieced together the history of these, such as the land wars. The effectiveness of the occasional Maori word and the extensive introductions of different cultural rituals was easy to read and understand and insightful.
Grace, P. (1998). Baby No-Eyes. Auckland: Penguin (294).