Wednesday, 25 July 2012

The Hungry Heart: Journeys with William Colenso by Peter Wells

Despite being born and raised in Hawke’s Bay, I knew nothing about William Colenso, apart from the fact he had a high school named after him.  Apparently, this is quite common, so Napier resident, Peter Wells, thought to rectify this by writing an account of Colenso’s very full and rather tumultuous life.  

Wells is a skilled writer of various genre including novels, short stories and screen.   After three years of careful research, the historical detail presented is contextually rich and carefully notated, with good use of first hand sources.  But the real magic of this book is that it reads like an atmospheric novel with the depth of psychological insight and unfolding revelation of character, all vividly and lovingly portrayed.  Colenso the young idealistic printer and missionary morphs in and out, overlaid by a sensuous passionate man, adventurous, yet fastidious, always outspoken and opinionated, even at great personal risk.  This complex man was driven to write, record and reflect on everything from the mundane to the critical. His extensive writings include his first-hand account of the signing of the Treaty, the fight for land, the formation of the colony, and an intimate knowledge of Maori custom.  A fluent Te Reo speaker, Colenso worked tirelessly for the missionary cause before being ejected on moralistic grounds, losing wife and children in the process. He then transformed himself into politician and botanist.  

Despite always playing a part in colonial society, Wells locates Colenso as an outsider who was never fully accepted.  He conjures up a deeply layered hero/antihero, I was never quite sure, but I kept having to dip back in to follow him, Illiad-like, from one adventure to the next. 

Colenso was regarded as an eccentric in his own day.  He had an uncanny sense of seeing the dramatic events of the period as if looking back through the lens of the future, urging his fellow contemporaries to widen their perspective and strain against the narrow boundaries of their self-interest and social prejudices.  Similarly, this book creates such a ripple effect in the reader, urging you to feel the significance of times past, present and future, all intimately connected and deeply personal. 

The Hungry Heart contains a challenging juxtaposition of past and present combining photographs, portraits, and original texts to weave an evocative and rewarding tale of a life lived to the full.

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The Hungry Heart: Journeys with William Collenso by Peter Wells

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