The outcast in Apirana Taylor’s “Five Strings”

1I started Five Strings two months ago, barrelled through most of it, and then put it on hold. It became too much. I picked it up this weekend, and pushed my way through the last pages. It was hard not to be bogged down in Mack and Puti’s story, the two outcasts at the centre of this novel. Their lives are full of pain, trauma, drugs, and alcohol. They have been hurt, it would seem irreparably, as youngsters, and are now paying the price for their follies, as well as those of others. They get on each other’s nerves, and push each other’s buttons. But they are also each other’s only family.

I discovered this title at Auckland Writers’ Fest ’17, when I came across a panel with Apirana Taylor. In an article in The Spinoff, he describes his novel as:

“a love story about two alcoholic drug addicts called Puti and Mack, who live in the criminal underbelly of New Zealand’s underworld along with other outcasts, social misfits and the dispossessed.”

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot more about those suffering from homelessness. It’s increased in my city of late. It’s even more evident in other cities near me. When I was at the writers’ festival, it was hard not to walk down the main street and see someone huddling in blankets against shop corners every two blocks. It’s hard not to see the contrasts of people leisurely enjoying themselves at bistros, while a couple of feet away a person’s crouched against a corner, with their few belongings in a bag next to them, and a piece of cardboard requesting help that’s not always forthcoming.

It is, of course, also hard to help everyone. At least, on your own. A cup of hot chocolate can only go so far. It doesn’t break the cycle. Kindness is important, certainly. Mack and Puti are raw and hardened from the cruelties that life has handed them. They are rarely the recipients of kindness.  The only gentleness they receive is from each other. They have been betrayed by society, by their own family members. They have been let down by a faulty system that is not focused enough on the causes of problems that may lead to homelessness and mental health. And as soon as someone slips through the cracks, washing up on the outskirts of society, society no longer wants to recognise them as people. They are apparently no longer worthy of kindness or respect.

Taylor says:

In search of Te Ao Marama I found that if society was an apple at least half the core was rotten.

There can be no time for kindness if we are all too busy being rotten. Often, during discussions of homelessness, one of the main arguments that comes up is “Why should I give them my money if they’re only going to spend it on drugs?” There are, of course, many other questions that trail behind (“Why should I part with my hard-earned money?”, “Why don’t they just get a job?”). The discussion is often centered around easing guilt, and validating the choice not to help. We get too caught up in the us/them mentality. It is easy to forget that one of “us” could easily become one of “them.” (Let me note there, with some bitterness, that the only time the homeless people become one of “us”, is when people want to argue about reducing the refugee intake. Interesting how concern for homeless people skyrockets then.)

Mack and Puti are also outcasts in other ways. Even in the community of the “dispossessed” that they rub shoulders with they don’t quite feel at home. They return to the pub time and again, trying to fill the emptiness and dull their wounds, but each visit is less effective than the last. Mack’s perceptiveness about their own destructive cycle is no help to him. They are also estranged from their Māori community.

In the end salvation comes from the Māori community. I wish Taylor had developed this section a bit more. It felt rather rushed, with a lot more telling than showing. The scenes leading up to it, the scenes of squalor, booze, and drugs, all tainted with trauma and depression, were intensely repetitive. It may have been constructed to convey the destructive cycle that Mack and Puti are caught up in. However, after all that, it would have been just as important, and all the more soothing, to dwell on the more uplifting part of the book.

Having said that, I would highly recommend this book. It’s a hard read, but a good one. It teaches that above all anything, respect and empathy are key, and I think that’s a lesson we could all use a refresher on.

Five Strings was published by Anahera Press.

Read the Spinoff article from Apirana Taylor.


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