Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 8, 2020

Auē, by Becky Manawatu


Becky Manawatu’s debut novel Auē, was the winner of both the Jann Medlicott Acorn Foundation Fiction prize and the Hubert Church Best First Book of Fiction prize in the 2020 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards… but I knew how good it was before that because I had read the review at the review at Alys on the Blog back in 2019.  I reserved it at the library there and then, even though they only had it on order at the time.  And that’s how I came to be the first reader of this title when Bayside library opened up again for click-and-collect reservations.  (It turns out that the librarian is a Kiwi, which is why Bayside has the best collection of NZ fiction in my locality.)

As Alys explained in her review, ‘Auē!’ is a Maori cry of distress, but it’s a cry that is suppressed for most of the novel.  Manawatu, who is a journalist, says in the Acknowledgements, that she wrote the book in memory of a boy called Glen Bo Duggan (1983-1994) who was…

An artistic, funny, kind, smart, handsome boy, who needed a taniwha to come and rip through his front door and tear down the walls of the house so everyone could see what was going on behind them.  (p.327)

I found out about this boy.  He died at the hands of his stepfather.  And like far too many children in New Zealand and here in Australia and no doubt elsewhere as well, he died because no one saw what was going on.  So yes, this is a confronting book, but it’s superbly written, with the undercurrent of distress escalating as the pages progress… until it explodes in a devastating climax.

Ārama, a little boy of school age, begins the narration.  He’s been dumped by his older brother Taukiri on his Aunty Kat and her despicable partner Uncle Stu.  Stu is a violently cruel man with no redeeming features whatsoever.  But Taukiri is another who cares only about himself, and in the wake of his parents’ death, he just wants to be off, so he abandons his bewildered and bereft little brother.  Chucking his phone in the sea so that Ārama can’t call him, he takes off for the north island, to play guitar and take drugs and use foolish girls like Megan.  Even when the narration switches to Taukiri’s PoV, most readers are going to have difficulty empathising with him at times, but there is redemption eventually.  (And unlike Stu, whose only excuse seems to be that nobody ever loved him, Taukiri does have troubling memories and the recent trauma of the tragedy in which his parents died).

A third narration, about Jade and Toko, takes place in the past.  It’s third person, but it’s from Jade’s perspective, telling the story of her dysfunctional life in a Maori  subculture of drugs, violence and lawlessness.  The reader has to piece together the connections between these characters through the three narrations, plus a fourth voice, in italics, who is clearly a ghost not at peace, and trying to intervene in what looks like an increasingly desperate situation for everybody.

Like Alan Duff’s Once There Were Warriors, this novel doesn’t shy away from depicting the dysfunctional aspects of Maori gang culture and the violence of toxic masculinity.  There is a brief allusion to colonisation as the source of these troubles…

If only the boats that sailed, night and day to find these islands, had been filled with guitars instead of guns.  Tambourines instead of opioids.  More triangles, fewer Bibles. (p.151)

… but no excuses are made.  There is a great deal of violence in the novel though it mostly takes place offstage, but the sense of hopelessness is pervasive. Ārama is befriended by a neighbour called Tom Aiken and his rebellious daughter called Beth.  He seems like a nice man, but nice men don’t let their daughters run wild and watch R-rated violent movies and stay away from school so that they have no future.  Nice men don’t stand by and do nothing but wring their hands and proffer useless advice when Stu beats up Aunty Kat again and burns Ārama’s long-awaited letter from Taukiri.  In the end it’s not an adult who stands up to Stu, it’s a child. The author is making the point that the future lies with children, but it’s a sad and sorry state of affairs when there’s not one decent, responsible adult amongst the lot of them. (Seeking help from police or welfare services seems not to be an option.  And none of the children in this story go to school except fleetingly, so no one’s looking out for them there.)

Ārama’s situation is always precarious, but the characterisation is not sentimental. Terrified by Stu’s violence and bitterly disappointed about a cancelled outing, Ārama hides in the hay shed.  He falls asleep but is woken by the dog Lupo, and a light shining into his nest of scratchy hay…

‘You in there, Ari?’ Tom Aiken.
“Ari, come out.’ Beth.
‘Mate, you gonna get bitten by bugs sleeping up there.  Come down.’
I peeked.  There was Tom Aiken, Beth beside him.
I pulled back into my nest.
‘Some on, bud.  Let’s go home.’
‘I don’t want to go home,’ I yelled.
‘I don’t mean home home. I just. I just mean let’s go eat roast chicken. Roast chicken in the oven at our house.  Which is another of your homes.  Our house is yours.’
I didn’t answer.
‘Did I mention roast chicken, no vegetables?  White bread and butter?  Ice cream for dessert?  Did I mention that you can have a sleepover and eat some junk food?’
I didn’t answer, but my mouth watered, and my back was suddenly real itchy.’  (p.84)

This gift for dialogue is matched by a raw authenticity which propels the novel along until it becomes unputdownable.

Becky Manawatu is of Ngāi Tahu descent. Ngāi Tahu, or Kāi Tahu, is the principal Māori iwi (people/nation) of the South Island of New Zealand.  She uses many Maori terms throughout the narrative, not always comprehensible from context but readers can always use Google Translate if necessary.

Claire McAlpine reviewed this book too at Word by Word. 

Author: Becky Manawatu
Title: Auē
Cover art by Penny Howard, cover design by Mary McCallum
Publisher: Makaro Press, NZ, 2019
ISBN: 9780995111028, pbk., 327 pages
Source: Bayside Library Service

Available from Fishpond: Aue


Responses

  1. Sounds great. Two of my grandchildren have Maori grandparents and visit NZ from time to time to mix with their rellos. I hadn’t thought about what nation they might belong to – easy to find out, their great uncle was the first Maori Governor General. Bit early to give them a book like this but I should discuss with my daughter what books we do give them.

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    • I like the honesty of this book… I’m just finishing off The Matriarch by Witi Ihimaera, and I’m struggling to accept his justifications for war. More about that in my review…

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  2. […] Manawatu in conversation with Tara June Winch.  Becky is the author of Auē, which I reviewed here.  I had all kinds of trouble with the WordPress editor today which impacted on being able to take […]

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