Breaking connections by Albert Wendt – 2015

breaking connectionsI so wanted to like this novel, and when I started it I thought I would love it – but by the end I had mixed feelings.  Daniel is a poet and novelist working as a University lecturer in Hawaii, in exile from New Zealand after one infidelity too many, and having regular nightmares of Laura, his ex-wife, shooting him between the eyes.  His life in ‘paradise’ is shaping up to be not too dissimilar from that he left behind when he gets a call that Aaron, an old friend in New Zealand, has been killed.  As he returns for the tangi, and to find he is the sole executor of Aaron’s will, we learn the history of Daniel’s urban ‘tribe’ – a group of friends, all from the same poor neighbourhood and all Polynesian, or having being adopted into Polynesian families.  The members of the tribe have been tight since they were 5 year old classmates, and Mere – the ‘matriarch’ of the group – brings palagi Laura in when they are at University and Laura and Daniel pair up.  The descriptions of the love and solidarity of the group through the various ups and downs of the friends’ lives over the decades is moving, and central to the plot – but the style of writing and Wendt’s dialogue in these sections didn’t work for me.  For example the descriptions of the camping trip to Waioha Beach and the introduction of Laura to the Samoan way of life with Daniel’s aiga in Samoa – probably my cold palagi upbringing but I found these descriptions too emotional and idealistic.  And I was puzzled by references to Laura reading Albert Wendt’s Sons for the return home and Under the banyan tree as part of her immersion!  Despite learning the histories of all of the tribe members there are only a few we really get to know – and difficulties like Daniel’s blatant sexist double standards – a serial womaniser who won’t forgive his mother for (possibly) having an affair – are acknowledged but not really explored.  The ethical conundrum which is explored is that given the overwhelming intelligence and goodness of the members of the tribe it is obvious to all right from the start (and especially to Daniel who once observed Aaron abusing two young school students – oddly named Arthur and Martha) that Aaron has a dangerous side and illegal business associates.  And they know it is Aaron’s illegal life which is funding them, and others, through their own lives and successful careers.  This tension is interesting and stretched to breaking point when the tribe members find out the conditions of Aaron’s will, and the hurdles to getting their bequests.  I have been thinking about this a lot since finishing the book – whether family and cultural loyalties should ever trump the law and damage done to those not in the ‘family’ – but even in the scenario Wendt presents us with in Breaking connections, I am not convinced Daniel would make the deal he makes at the book’s conclusion.  It is definitely a thought-provoking read.

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