Aue Another Superb New Zealand Novel


AUÉ (2022)

By Becky Manawatu

Scribe Publications, 363 pages.





In the Māori language aué is an exclamation of surprise, alarm, or distress. Its multiple meanings depend upon the context in which it’s used, a bit like “holy crap or OMG!” in English.


In New Zealand, Becky Manawatu’s new novel, aué connotes distress most of the time, but also astonishment. Her novel will certainly draw comparisons to the late Keri Hulme’s masterpiece the bone people. Like it, Aué involves Māori living on the social edges. It probes three generation’s worth of damage wrought by marginalization, alcohol, drugs, gangs, and violence.


At its heart are two parentless brothers, the older Taukiri (“Tauk”) and young Arama (“Ari”). Tauk is sick of his life and about to take off for parts unknown to forge a new path. Before he goes, he places Ari with his aunt Kat and uncle Stuart in a small farming village near Auckland. He promises Ari he will return, though he has no idea how or when. He packs his clothes and guitar into his vehicle and straps his surfboard on the roof, the latter of which he plans to hock or sell if he needs money. Ari is crushed.


Kat is the sister of Tauk and Ari’s mother Jade, who disappeared shortly after her husband Toko was murdered. Theirs was a love story that parallels a Māori romance. Toko rescued her from a cycle of violence. Her best friend Savannah was murdered by Hash and Jade was then raped and claimed as the “girlfriend” of Hash’s gang mate Coon. Toko once tried to help Coon, but that was a mistake. To further complicate matters, Jade’s farther Hénare (“Head”) was also murdered and his wife Felicity also fled.


Kat is kind to Ari, but Stuart is a sadistic monster. One of Ari’s few comforts is his neighbor Tom, whose wife left him many years before and has long held a flame for Kat and contempt for Stuart’s treatment of her. Tom also has a daughter, Beth, who becomes Ari’s best friend. Beth and Ari construct an us-against-the-world fantasy world that’s often fashioned from Hollywood movies. Beth tries to bolster the fearful Ari’s confidence by calling him “Django,” derived from their inappropriate and clandestine viewing of the Quentin Tarantino film Django Unchained. Nice try on Beth’s part, but Ari is no Django; he’s so sensitive that every hurt, physical or psychological, commands application of multiple plasters (Band-Aids as we call them in North America).


You might infer that a lot of anguish, trauma, and violence will go down before things get better. Aué often reads like a fictionalized version of the hidden injuries of social class and poverty. Some reviewers have aptly noted parallels to Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain. Manawatu paints several portraits of how hard it is for those living on the social margins to do the right thing when faced with externals that undermine good intentions. If you’ve ever wondered where the lines between victimization and heroism lie, Manawatu will further blur those boundaries, though she also clarifies them in several remarkable encounters of the unforeseen kind.


For Pakéha (white) readers, Aué can be a tough read at times. Manawatu uses Māori names and phrases and expects you to uncover their meanings. (There is an index of sorts.) Hope occurs in trickles and seeps, not torrents. The painful aspects make it an honest novel, even when you’re tempted to do as Ari, cover yourself in plasters, and cry out “aué!”  


I found it admirable that Manawatu did not make undue efforts to make the Māori world more accessible for white readers.  As in the United States, there is in New Zealand an increasing trend toward people of color expressing themselves in their own terms rather than catering to prevailing expectations. If this limits potential audiences, shame lands on those afraid to go outside of their comfort zones.


A more productive way to think of all this is that aué can only be expressed positively when those benefitting from marginalization pull The Other from the fringes to the center. Gangs, violence, and social damage generally occur in absence and want, not presence and plentitude.


Rob Weir  


PS: The correct spelling of aué should have a straight line across the e, not an accent mark. I simply couldn’t find a keyboard function that allowed me to do that.



The Sanatorium: Cheap Thrills



By Sarah Pearse

Penguin Group, 416 pages.





Elin Warner is on a ski holiday to Switzerland. In recent memory, her eight-year-old son Sam died in an accident and her mother of cancer. Elin dares hope a trip with her partner Will, whom she fears is losing patience with her, will quell her grief. It seldom works that way, in life or in fiction.


Sarah Pearse takes us to creepy places in her debut novel The Sanatorium. Locals still mention the sanatorium, though the grand building that once cared for people with mental disorders has been done over as Le Sommet Hotel, a minimalist glass and steel luxury facility set high in the Alps. Will, an architect, loves it; Elin finds it soulless. Nevertheless, she puts on her game face in the hope of fixing herself and repairing a deeply broken relationship with her brother Isaac, a longtime screw-up, who is there with his fiancé Laure.


Hopes of restful readjustment vanish with the discovery of the body of architect Daniel Lemaitre, who designed the hotel makeover. Daniel has long been missing, but his associates believed that he decided to leave the fast track and live in obscurity. Nope! When other people, including Laure, begin to vanish, things get hairy. Le Sommet developer Lucas Caron and his sister Cecile, the hotel’s general manager, try to calm guests, but they rub people the wrong way. After all, it’s hard to put a positive spin on disappearances. Anyone with a modicum of sense jumps on the bus to the valley below, despite the fact that it’s a scary ride down switchback turns in a snowstorm. Before everyone can vacate, though, a blizzard and avalanche close the road, stranding eight guests and 37 staff members.


The Sanatorium is a nerve-racking thriller in which things go bump in the snow. There’s nothing like terrified people with no place to go for revelations to ooze out, be it accidentally, strategically, or directly. Some will involve the old sanatorium, others are about loved ones, and still others concern grudges old and recent. Because it will be days before Swiss officials can mount the summit, Elin is authorized to launch a careful investigation and keep them apprised of developments. Just two small problems, Elin is an emotional basket case and she has neglected to tell local law enforcement that she’s an on-leave cop about to lose her job.


Can things get any worse? A rising body count and more disappearances accomplish that. Elin came close to being dispatched by a gas-mask wearing sadist and it’s hard to feel comfortable when it’s clear a serial killer is at work. That sicko has a gruesome modus operandi; victims surface with three fingers missing and wearing bracelets bearing non-sequential five-digit numbers. If you’re prone to nightmares, you might not wish to read this during daylight hours. What do we have here, Freddy Krueger with a mask?


Pearse sustains tension throughout because she populates her novel with liars. If no one is trustworthy, the usual process of winnowing red herrings and identifying legitimate suspects short-circuits. In a book in which anyone could be guilty, you must wend your way to the end where revelations come Agatha Christie-like. You might, however, feel cheated. Clues and circumstances stack to the point of overabundance, which leaves us with revealed connections that strain probability.


Ultimately Pearse is better at creating a nouveau Gothic mood than in penning a convincing murder mystery. It was a good idea to dispense with an omniscient investigator–they too stretch credulity–but Pearse solves one problem by creating another. We know that Elin is damaged, but not even an a messed up ex-cop would commit as many procedural errors as she. It’s one thing to invoke a Pandora’s box scenario, but it seldom works multiple times with the same person lifting the lid. Pearse paints herself into a metaphorical corner and drifts to conclusions that are more deus ex machina than logical. Plus, she over-explains; not every character or detail requires a lurid backstory.


This is a wildly popular novel, but I have mixed feelings about it. On many levels it’s clumsy and unbelievable. Yet it’s hard to dismiss that it’s also filled with nail-biting thrills. Many of them are undeniably cheap thrills, but evidence suggests we can be bought.


Rob Weir


See How Peggy Guggenheim Invented Herself


Directed by Lisa Immordino Vreeland

Submarine Deluxe, 95 minutes, Not-rated.




 Tourists flock to Venice and crowd St. Mark’s Square. The cognoscenti have the wisdom to cross the Grand Canal and set their sights on a low-slung palazzo that fronts the water: the Peggy Guggenheim Foundation. It is a magical place to visit.


Very few people have seen Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict, a documentary that debuted at the Tribeca Festival in 2015. Luckily, it’s now readily available in DVD and online. Its subject, Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979), is an endlessly fascinating character and “character” is the right word if applied in stubborn but persistent terms. She was the niece of the filthy rich Solomon Guggenheim whose name is on a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed art museum in New York City. Peggy, though, looked to Europe and presciently began collecting modern art before it was fashionable to do so and before prices skyrocketed. 



Her second husband was surrealist painter Max Ernst, whom she divorced in 1946, and she refused to be tied down thereafter. Celibate she wasn’t; she lived a life as promiscuous as an alley cat, having slept with over 1,000 men by her reckoning. As you’ve already surmised, she had some money but little intention of being a conventional rich girl. How many of those do you know who befriended anarchist Emma Goldman? Or had the moxie to adorn the front of her palazzo with an erect naked horseman? One of her few nods to propriety is that the rider’s penis unscrewed so as not to offend visiting clerics. (If you’re wondering–and you know you are–it’s now welded in place as it was so often stolen!) 



 Peggy sponsored, supported, slept with, and purchased art from a veritable who’s who of the modern art scene, from Brâncusi to Tanguy via Calder, Dali, Kandinsky, Picasso, and scores of others. She moved to Venice in 1949, after closing money-losing galleries in Paris, St. Tropez, and London. Some of her art was displayed at the Venice Biennale in 1946, but most of it ended up in the palazzo into which she moved three years later. She was indeed an art addict, one who obsessively purchased works and chose to live in what was essentially an art gallery that happened to have some furniture. The palazzo was, in essence, the backdrop for the various parties, soirées, and salon evenings that defined her life in Italy.


Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s documentary spotlights Guggenheim’s life, loves, and collection. In part, it finishes one begun by Maya Deren and Marcel Duchamp in 1943. That’s actually the boldest thing about the film, much of which relies upon talking heads and art experts that tell us what is before our eyes: Guggenheim was an original, as was the stunning art she collected. I will add parenthetically that I was not an enthusiastic fan of modern art until the first time I set foot in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. Maybe it was because being in Venice enhanced the experience, but I think it was because seeing it as I imagined Guggenheim displayed it made it more approachable than what it would have looked like in the more serious context of, well, New York’s Solomon Guggenheim Museum.


I recommend this documentary for its subject and the art, not the filmmaking. I guess in a way it’s appropriate that Vreeland didn’t try to dazzle viewers. When you have a subject this good, it’s generally a wise course to stay out the way. After all, what would it take to upstage Peggy Guggenheim?


Was Peggy a bohemian, a rich girl who played one, or a first-class crank? Draw your own conclusion but the smart money’s on “yes.” And if you’re ever in Venice, be sure to take a vaporetto across the Grand Canal to see what Peggy bought and wrought. 


Rob Weir