UPRISING by Nic Low, Book Review: Candid walk through history

UPRISING: Walking the Southern Alps of New Zealand by Nic Low is a travel memoir elevated by history, lore and heart. Read my full review.

UPRISING: Walking the Southern Alps of New Zealand Synopsis

This book is about walking as a form of knowing. Armed with Ngāi Tahu’s traditional oral maps and modern satellite atlas, I crossed the Southern Alps more than a dozen times, trying to understand how our forebears saw the land. What did it mean to define your identity by sacred mountains, or actually see them as ancestors, turned to stone?

Raised in the shadow of New Zealand’s Southern Alps, Nic Low grew up on mountain stories from his family’s European side. Years later, a vision of the Alps in a bank of storm clouds sparked a decade-long obsession with comprehending how his Māori ancestors knew that same terrain. 

Kā Tiritiri-o-te-moana, the Alps, form the backbone of the Ngāi Tahu tribe’s territory: five hundred kilometres of mountains and glaciers, rivers and forests. Far from being virgin wilderness, the area was named and owned long before Europeans arrived and the struggle for control of the land began.

Low talked with tribal leaders, dived into the archives and an astonishing family memoir, and took what he learned for a walk. Part gripping adventure story, part meditation on history and place, Uprising recounts his alpine expeditions to unlock the stories living in the land.

Uprising is an invitation to travel one of the world’s most spectacular landscapes in the company of Māori explorers, raiding parties, and gods.

Genre: Nonfiction, Memoir, Adventure; Text Publishing, July 2021

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Book Review

In my review of Nic Low’s thought-provoking short story collection Arms Race, and Other Stories (2014) I said:

I always admire the precision and control displayed by authors skilled in the short story format, but the stories that most excite me and linger longest in my memory are those that offer readers a new slant on or cleverly exploit a peculiarity of human behaviour.

So I knew Low’s talent for exploring the human condition – the good, the bad and the absurd – would translate well into the travel memoir format, and particularly one with such deep-rooted ties to the past.

In Uprising, Low explores the pre and post-colonial history of the Southern Alps of New Zealand at the same time as he explores the terrain, the former at times just as treacherous. Particularly compelling and well-paced are the chapters where he has interspliced his own experience on a particular walk with the known and imagined experiences of historical adventurers (both Maori and European settlers). His evocative descriptions render the Southern Alps’ with a sense of grandeur and otherworldly gravitas that helps bridge the gap between history and fantastical origin stories.

In an oral society the land is the book, and the place names are the writing. Reading is moving through the landscape, recalling the stories as you go.

Memoirs can be tricky things, the line between candid and self-indulgent deceptively fine. For my tastes, Low found the right balance. His motivations for investigating his whakapapa (genealogy, i.e. Maori identity and ancestral connection to the land) felt authentic; the personal doubts and reservations he shares with the reader while doing so only enhanced that fact. Similarly, few would fail to be moved by the father-son bond on display within.

Notionally divided into walks, Uprising is a book you can either dip in and out of at your leisure or read it from cover to cover like I did, immersing myself in the layered journey stories of a country, its people and our travel guide.

BOOK RATING: The Story 3.5 / 5 ; The Writing 4 / 5 – Overall 3.75

Get your copy of Nic Low’s Uprising from:

Amazon Book Depository Booktopia AU

More Uprising Reviews

‘A narrative of multiple crossings of Kā Tiritiri-o-te-moana, the South Island’s Main Divide, Uprising is a song to the mountains, rivers, glaciers, coasts, skies, weather and more…It is a meditation that intensifies as the book unfolds. And it is deeply personal.’ – Kete Books

‘ is a very endearing storyteller and an earnest storyteller as well…It’s such a pleasure to read.’ – Loose Reads

Uprising will join the New Zealand canon or blow past it, but whichever, it’ll make an impact… treads the line between trauma and humour, fact and speculative fiction, between Pākehā and Māori and between two languages…’ – NZ Listener

About the Author, Nic Low

Nic Low is a writer of Ngāi Tahu and European descent who divides his time between Melbourne, Australia and Christchurch, New Zealand. His writing on wilderness, technology and race has been widely published and anthologised on both sides of the Tasman. His first book was Arms Race, a collection of speculative fictions shortlisted for the Readings and Steele Rudd prizes, and named a New Zealand Listener and Australian Book Review book of the year. He is co-director of the WORD Christchurch festival. Check out his website or connect with him on Twitter.

This review counts toward my participation in the Aussie Author Challenge 2021 and the 2021 Nonfiction Reader Challenge.

* My receipt of a review copy from the publisher did not impact the expression of my honest opinions above.