This is the latest in Cathie Dunsford’s series of novels concerning the exploits of Cowrie, her exuberant eco-warrior. After travelling to San Francisco, Hawaii, the Orkneys, and Moruroa Atoll in previous books, Cowrie is back on home ground in New Zealand/Aotearoa. She finds that people in her home region are becoming sick with mysterious illnesses seemingly linked to the increase in aerial crop-spraying. Even more disturbingly, she discovers that there are plans to conduct secret genetic experiments on a local farm, land that is sacred to Maori tradition.
The news galvanizes the green movement and Maori activists and they embark on an anti-GM hikoi, a mass march on Parliament. Meanwhile Cowrie leads a group to infiltrate the laboratory and film the horrific cloning experiments going on there.
A plot summary does not really do justice to the rich texture of Ao Toa. Cathie Dunsford has woven through the novel a heady mix of Maori myth and legend, lesbian sensuality, political debate and, above all, a love of good food and conversation. She counterpoints the warm human interaction of Cowrie and her family and friends with the arid and soulless profit motive of the corporate suits.
The danger of this approach is that it can lead to an over-simplistic divide between good and evil and a sentimental attitude towards ‘our side’. It would be a shame if this put off potential readers for, under the rather precious surface of the novel, there is a stimulating examination of the nature of power and the practical and adaptable nature of popular resistance
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