A Runner's Guide to Rakiura, Jessica Howland Kany

Reviewed By
Karen Chisholm

Started this book with absolutely no idea what I was going to get, got through the first quarter with no idea what was going on, ended the whole thing thoroughly enjoying every word of it.

Maudie is the central character of this novel, a millenial New Yorker who, on assigment to cover Aotearoa New Zealand's southern-most running trails, takes herself to Rakiura Stewart Island. She's erratic, impulsive, and very American when she first arrives in the eccentric, self-sufficient, laid back community that captures her heart and energy. Despite a sense of constant "otherness" Maudie buries herself in this world of mutton birds, floating libraries, pub denizens, pāua divers and local myths, legends and rumours. She also takes up residence with a local identity, Vil, as his previous housemate, Fence, has headed off in seach of bigger fencing opportunities. This is a friendship that gently, and very naturally becomes more - especially as these two are outsiders and loners for very different reasons. Meanwhile back in New York Maude's stays in touch with her Uncle Buddy, and it's via the conversations and communications between them that we discover more about Maudie, what caused her physical differences, what happened to Buddy, and why she's running (in all interpretations of the word) away.

The other attraction of this novel has to be the way that the American, and ultimate city-girl Maudie finds herself beguiled and confused by the local community. Everything's different. The English language, outlooks and attitudes, lifestyles and aspirations. Maudie's confusion is often laugh out loud funny, frequently self-deprecating, inquisitive and full of the delight of discovery and expanded horizons.

On a deeper level, there's a lot being not said out loud about the different and same ways the past can cause damage that the future has to deal with. 

Finally, and perhaps a bit unexpectedly, there's the attraction of a slightly chaotic storytelling style, with multiple narratives running in parallel, keeping readers on their toes, giving you a real sense of Maudie's frequent confusion, the struggle she has to embrace the differences, and find a path that works for her. As part of these connecting stories, the reader is on a current timeline treasure hunt, with clues from the past, the timeline moving from present Rakiura to the past battlefields of Monte Cassino, and from post-war Paris to post-911 New York. Along with that buried treasure hunt, there's the not unexpected twist that nobody is quite sure what this "treasure" is; a desperate hunt for a missing man; environmental politics; an intermingling of cultures and beliefs; love; war; friendship; the joys of running; and a lot of personal reinvention. 

The style of this novel is breezy, and tongue in cheek, delivering some serious subject matter, and some not-so-serious moments, via the auspices of a terrific sense of place and society, populated by an engaging, and delightfully crazy, cast of characters of all shapes and sizes. Sure it's a bit complicated at times, but readers could also find themselves so invested in Maudie and those around her, they will happily jog on until the fog lifts and everything falls into place.


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Year of Publication

“A Millennial New Yorker, a Stewart Island fisherman, and a WW II veteran walk into a bar...”

Maudie’s on the run – from New York and from her past – but she runs headlong into her future when she ends up on Rakiura Stewart Island on assignment to cover Aotearoa New Zealand’s southernmost running trails. Or, as her new fisherman friend Vil puts it: “Giving brainless bucket-listers hard-ons for islands like mine.”

She quickly becomes absorbed into island life and once she hears tales of buried treasure, Maudie embarks on a dogged pursuit of the truth, increasingly hooked by gossipy hints. Clues and waypoints are buried in old SINs (Stewart Island News) and pieces of the puzzle are scrawled on buoys washed up on the pages.

Maudie doesn’t cut a convincing detective figure. She’s an erratic, impulsive, semi-alcoholic millennial, but nothing breaks her stride as she wades into the world of laconic locals and dune grass politics. Like a daydreaming runner, the narrative weaves, loops, and backtracks, taking in pāua divers, whales, yellow-eyed penguins, muttonbirds, floating libraries and Sunday pub quizzers.

Welcome to a tale of romance, adventure, and a treasure hunt which will take you through decades and landscapes, from the beaches of Rakiura Stewart Island to the battlefield of Monte Cassino, to post-war Paris, to the Twin Towers rebuild. Vast and sweeping in scope, this brilliant debut novel is braided with stories of love and war, loss, relationships, island lore, and the joys of running.  A Runner’s Guide to Rakiura is also playful, funny, and romantic, and like any good treasure hunt, there will be reckonings, redemptions, and yes… there will be treasure.

Review A Runner's Guide to Rakiura, Jessica Howland Kany
Karen Chisholm
Thursday, August 3, 2023

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