Michael Magras


In the Māori language, an auē is an anguished wail, a cry from the heart. Among the frustrations likeliest to cause such a lament are domestic violence and racism. New Zealand writer Becky Manawatu explores both of these painful forms of dominion in her impressive debut novel.

Manawatu gave herself a big challenge with Auē: Not only does her novel explore two fraught forms of subjection, but she also splits her narrative into three distinct perspectives. Two of them are Māori brothers, 17-year-old Taukiri and 8-year-old Ārama. Their father has died, and their mother has disappeared, so Taukiri drives Ārama to their Aunty Kat and Uncle Stu’s farm in Kaikōura, a coastal town on New Zealand’s South Island. “I’ll be back as soon as I can,” Taukiri assures his brother, yet he’s convinced Ārama will be better off without him.

As Manawatu skillfully shows, that’s not necessarily true. Ārama finds support from his Aunty Kat and neighbors Beth and Tom Aiken, but Uncle Stu is a brute, the type of ruffian to give his wife a black eye over his latest grievance, and who snatches a letter written by Taukiri and burns it before Ārama can read it.

Ārama is so distressed by his dislocation that he covers his body in bandages to calm himself. It would be of greater help for Taukiri to return, but in his brother’s absence, Ārama is comforted by memories they’ve shared and his ownership of a bone carving he and Taukiri fashioned from the carcass of a dead baby whale.

The book’s third storyline follows Jade and Toko, who, years earlier, meet at a beach party after Jade’s cousin Sav helps her to escape an abusive boyfriend. Jade, too, contends with domestic problems; her mother, Felicity, is loving but has “a craving for drugs.”

The tension in Auē sometimes flags, and some key details are withheld too long, but overall Manawatu does a nice job of gradually revealing secrets and the intricacies of the characters’ myriad tragedies. Auē exposes the racism some New Zealanders feel toward Māoris, but it’s ultimately a hopeful work with a message worth remembering: Cries from the heart can be painful, but sometimes they get answered.

Becky Manawatu's debut novel is ultimately a hopeful work with a message worth remembering: Cries from the heart can be painful, but sometimes they get answered.

The history of world literature is filled with second novels that pale in comparison to their author’s stellar freshman achievement. How many debuts have had the spectacular success of Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain? More than 500,000 copies sold and the 2020 Booker Prize is not a bad way to start a literary career.

Readers will be happy to learn that Stuart’s follow-up, Young Mungo, is even stronger than his first book. This tale of two gay Glasgow teenagers caught amid various forms of prejudice in the early 1990s is a marvelous feat of storytelling, a mix of tender emotion and grisly violence that finds humanity in even the most fraught circumstances.

You know you’re in for a tough upbringing when your alcoholic mother names you after a patron saint known for having “started a fire from nothing, or . . . something,” as 15-year-old Mungo explains. But Mungo has bigger problems than his name, which Stuart describes in heartbreaking detail. Mungo’s alcoholic mother, 34-year-old Mo-Maw, often disappears on wild drinking sprees. When under the influence, she’s a harsher version of herself, transforming into a “heartless, shambling scarecrow” that Mungo, his brother Hamish and sister Jodie have nicknamed “Tattie-bogle.”

Hamish is a gang leader who leads fights against working-class Catholic youths, and he forces Mungo to join the Protestant cause and take to the streets with him. “I need to sort you out,” Hamish tells him. But Mungo doesn’t need sorting out. He needs more time with James Jamieson, a Catholic boy with whom he has fallen in love and who tends to birds in his beloved dovecote.

Scenes between Mungo and James are the most beautiful in the book. They stand in contrast to the moments that are among the most brutal: To toughen up Mungo, Mo-Maw sends him on a fishing trip with two thugs of questionable repute. That trip, like so much else in the book, doesn’t go the way Mungo, or his mother, ever anticipated.

Some plot elements in Young Mungo may disturb, but all are sensitively rendered, and the simplicity of Stuart’s writing makes them all the more powerful. One of the myths of St. Mungo is that he once brought a dead robin back to life. No such restoration occurs in young Mungo’s hardscrabble life, but as Stuart shows, hope often lies where you least expect it.

Douglas Stuart’s follow-up to Shuggie Bain is a marvelous feat of storytelling, a mix of tender emotion and grisly violence.

Sooner or later, every country experiences moments of upheaval. Some moments, however, are more consequential than others, such as the 2017 coup that ended the regime of Robert Mugabe as the president of Zimbabwe after four decades in power.

That ouster is the inspiration for Glory, NoViolet Bulawayo’s follow-up to her 2013 debut novel, We Need New Names, a finalist for the Booker Prize. Bulawayo has found a clever if familiar way to tell the story of a fictional African country and the fall of its leader: Clearly inspired by George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the population consists entirely of animals.

Known as the Father of the Nation, Old Horse is the leader of Jidada. He held a leadership role in the War of Liberation during the 1970s and has been in power for the past 40 years, his reign “longer than the nine life spans of a hundred cats.” In one of many witty touches, Bulawayo writes that Old Horse’s authority is so great that the sun twerks at his command and blazes with the intensity he desires.

Also in power, in her own way, is Old Horse’s wife, a donkey known as Dr. Sweet Mother, who denounces the “depravity” of the Sisters of the Disappeared, a group that demands the return of regime dissenters who have mysteriously vanished.

The novel’s action takes off from there, with a pack of dogs known as Defenders determined to protect the current regime; a vice president, also a horse, who schemes to take over; an Opposition convinced that the overthrow of the government will lead to better days; and a goat named Destiny, long exiled from Jidada, who returns after a decade’s absence to reunite with her mother and tell the story of her country’s struggles.

Glory is an allegory for the modern age, with references to contemporary world politics, chapters written as a series of tweets, and animals checking social media for updates on fast-changing developments. Animal Farm is the obvious parallel, but some readers will also note the influence of works by Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, especially in Bulawayo’s extravagant storytelling and critique of colonialism.

Late in the novel, Destiny notes “the willingness of citizens to get used to that which should have otherwise been the source of outrage.” As this wise, albeit occasionally repetitive, book makes clear, that’s a cautionary message all countries should heed.

NoViolet Bulawayo’s Animal Farm-inspired novel is an allegory for the modern age, with animals checking social media for updates on fast-changing developments.

When one looks back upon a life, one remembers it as a series of noncontiguous fragments, with each discrete moment forming a picture of a person. Italian writer Sandro Veronesi knows this instinctively. In The Hummingbird, he presents just such a puzzle to create a unique portrait of an enigma of a man.

In a narrative that moves through seven decades, from 1959 to 2030, Veronesi chronicles the life of Marco Carrera, an ophthalmologist in the Italian village of Bolgheri. His mother nicknamed him “the hummingbird” because, until age 14, he was worryingly shorter than his peers. But Marco resembles a hummingbird not just in his childhood stature but also, as one character puts it, “because all [his] energy is spent keeping still.”

Nevertheless, much happens to this supposedly fixed entity. The book starts in 1999, when a therapist who has been treating Marco’s wife, Marina, risks his career to tell Marco, “I have reason to believe you may be in grave danger.”

In chapters that incorporate text messages, emails, phone conversations, love letters and even poetry, Veronesi describes the events that shape Marco’s life, including his and his wife’s infidelities; his five-decade correspondence with a woman he loved since he was 20; the death of Marco’s sister and his estrangement from his brother; the difficulties facing his daughter, Adele, who met with a child psychologist when she was little because she felt she had a restrictive thread attached to her back; and Marco’s later guardianship of Adele’s daughter, Miraijin.

The Hummingbird is a moving, black-humored work about family and the tragedies born of time and poor decisions. Veronesi has created complicated characters that don’t always behave nobly, are products of their time and are, from a literary standpoint, the richer for it. As the omniscient narrator observes, “There are those who—not moving at all—still manage to cover great distances.” That’s the message of this wise book: A hummingbird may seem stationary, but in its way, it can cover a lot of ground.

The complicated characters in Sandro Veronesi’s novel don’t always behave nobly and are, from a literary standpoint, the richer for it.

Whatever one may think of Anthem, Noah Hawley’s latest literary thriller, no one could ever accuse the author and award-winning creator of the television series “Fargo” of skimping on plot. His action-stuffed follow-up to Before the Fall is an exciting cautionary tale that addresses just about every social ill facing Western civilization.

The action begins calmly enough: In 2009, a white judge named Margot Nadir and her second husband, a Black man named Remy, are watching their 9-year-old daughter, Story, sing the national anthem at a recital near their Brooklyn home. In a nice bit of foreboding, the Nadirs (one of the novel’s broad touches is their name) say they’re proud to “belong to the party of Lincoln” and feel that “the desire to belong, to be something, doesn’t make that dream come true.” As readers soon discover, their ambition, including Margot’s nomination to the Supreme Court, doesn’t shield them from real-world complexities and tragedies they could not have foreseen.

Hawley shifts the narrative a few years into the future, when a plague afflicts the world. As Hawley, one of the more skilled writers of pithy lines, puts it, “The summer our children began to kill themselves was the hottest in history.” Soon the crisis spreads worldwide, with more and more 12- to 25-year-olds taking their lives. Markets tank. Thousands die each day. And every victim scrawls “A11” near the site of their death.

Among them is Claire Oliver, the 17-year-old daughter of a pharmaceutical titan. Her death devastates her younger brother, Simon, who is sent to the Float Anxiety Abatement Center, where he hyperventilates into his omnipresent paper bag and contemplates the meaning of existence.

Hawley has further complications in store for Simon, and for the reader. An enigmatic Float resident who calls himself the Prophet tells Simon that God “has a mission for you”: to help build a new utopia. “The adults are lost. We, their children, are starting over.”

And that’s only the start. Anthem touches on just about every contentious topic one could name, from gun culture and climate change to race relations, extremist politicians and the “yelling box” that is the internet. The novel would have been stronger if Hawley had blended his themes more seamlessly into the narrative rather than letting his characters give speeches, but many of his painstakingly crafted scenes read like an action movie in book form. “We choose our reality,” one character says. Hawley’s novel reminds us to choose wisely.

“We choose our reality,” a character in Noah Hawley’s novel says. Anthem is a reminder to choose wisely.

Parenthood can be a challenge, albeit a rewarding one, even under ideal circumstances. If a parent is facing an illness, however, the challenge is far greater. That’s what Sonya Moriarty, a former stage actor with alcoholism who is raising her 4-year-old son alone in Dublin, contends with in Bright Burning Things, the latest novel from actor and playwright Lisa Harding.

Addiction seems to be the only constant that connects Sonya’s theatrical past and her maternal present. She even acknowledges that the ease with which she polishes off multiple bottles of wine in one sitting is “what made me such a great actress: extreme and electric.”

Extreme and electric are qualities she could get away with when directors bought fancy cars for her. Now that her world involves driving her beat-up old car to the grocery store to buy the orange-colored food that her son will eat, those attributes are less glamorous.

In a devastating early sequence, Sonya takes Tommy and their dog, Herbie, to the beach, only to get drunk that night, come dangerously close to burning down the house and wake up the next afternoon to find her son and dog missing.

The brisk narrative then shifts to Sonya’s attempts at maintaining sobriety and reclaiming her son’s trust. They begin when her father, absent from her life for the past two years, forces her to enter a rehabilitation program. Harding introduces characters who, for better or worse, affect Sonya’s efforts, from the neighbor who keeps a close eye on her to the nuns who care for her at the Catholic-run center and a counselor whose interest becomes more personal, and more insistent, as Sonya recovers.

Much of the story is predictable, but a ride can still be pleasant even when you know where you’re going. Sympathetic readers will feel pangs for Sonya’s experiences, and Harding’s descriptions of intensified sensations are unforgettable, from rain that “sounds like artillery fire” when it strikes a windowpane to cracks in the hospital ceiling that look like “portals to another world.” Bright Burning Things is a redemptive portrait of addiction and the extreme emotions of a parent in distress

The latest novel from actor-playwright Lisa Harding is a redemptive portrait of addiction and the extreme emotions of a parent in distress.

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