Tane’s War by Brendaniel Weir.
Auckland: Cloudinkpress (2018).
RRP: $29.95. Pb, 352pp.
Reviewed by Janet Charman.
In Tane’s War the protagonist, Briar, is forced to engage in a punishing regime of rural labour which the authorities intend should make him, a contemptibly “girly” boy, into a “real” man. Arbitrarily exiled from the city, he finds his banishment to a Hunua Ranges’ sheep farm utterly alienating. His eventual acclimatization, by learning to ride and love a failed racehorse, is in the best aspirational tradition of young adult fiction. The novel’s equal celebration of multiple, unwillingly acquired life-skills – shearing, seafaring, war, kissing girls – must also endear this tale to rueful older readers. A series of instructively detailed set pieces used skillfully by first time novelist Brendaniel Weir to render his repeated flashbacks satisfying.
In the novel’s conservative 1954 present day, the increasing confidence of the hero Briar, is supplemented by his sanity-saving rapport with Aussie, a youth a few years his senior. Weir’s staunch narrative approval of the right of these two young men to an awakening sexual agency is rendered poignant by flashbacks to their mentor Tane’s own boyhood. Years of self-denial impel this kindly shearing boss, to ready his teenage charges to endure the homophobic groupthink of their peers. His own tearaway origin, as a street kid on the Auckland wharves, is the vivid backdrop against which his high hopes for a college education come, like Briar’s, to be viciously thwarted. This tragedy relieved for Tane by his wild flight into unrequited passion for a young dockland criminal. It is an infatuation that propels him into the ambiguous refuge of the merchant navy and ultimately, onto the pitiless battlefields of World War One France. Yet overall the takataapui tangata whenua elements of Tane’s character promise more than Weir delivers.
In fact two damaged mothers and a selfish daughter are used melodramatically, to drive the plot. The self-absorbed cruelty of these females reaffirms patriarchy’s conventional trope of the dangerously contaminating character of femininity-effeminacy. A proposition that Weir’s gender ambiguously named hero Briar seemed destined to resist. But Briar’s imputed ‘girliness’, becomes the provocation for his villainous sexual torture. And his abjection is then shown as not redeemable by his own agency. Instead compensation comes via the heroic sacrifices of ‘manlier’ men.
Tane’s ‘chivalrous’ self-abnegation is seen in the present day of the text, when he compromises his economic independence in favour of his Pakeha boss. A sacrifice that is as troubling as his role in the novel’s symbolically castrative climax. Meanwhile at the text’s historical level Tane’s English lover Zach engages in an act of ‘glorious’ military valour. It is via these scenes of both “macho” and “chivalrous” heroism that the text asserts the legitimacy of homoerotic bonds.
However Briar’s repeatedly described assaults, wounds, falls, aches, spills and cuts reveal same sex desire not as ‘glorious’, but as traumatising. This sub-textually sadomasochistic plot strand signals to the reader the damagingly sacrificial price endlessly paid by those whose expression of a homoerotic sensibility is denigrated and/or fetishized as supposedly feminine-effeminate.
Janet Charman’s poetry collection, ‘仁 Surrender’, (OUP, 2017), chronicles her writing residencies in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Her monograph ‘Smoking: The Homoerotic Subtext of Man Alone, A Matrixial Reading’, Genrebooks, Dunedin, (2018), is free to download at: http://www.genrebooks.co.nz/