Review: Auē by Becky Manawatu

Auē begins with eight-year-old Ārama being left by his 17-year-old brother Taukiri with his aunt and uncle in Kaikōura on New Zealand’s South Island. It’s a cold farewell; as Tauk drives off towards the ferry to Wellington he thinks, “My brother would be better off without me”. Kaikōura is one of the places where New Zealand’s Alpine Fault meets the sea. When one of its offshoots ruptured in 2016, the town moved nearly a metre northwards. The sea floor rose by nearly two metres, stranding pāua out in the open air. It’s a foreboding location, and Auē, which takes place around the late 2010s, is similarly about such catastrophic ruptures within family.

Ari and Tauk are orphaned after an accident involving the sea. Tauk is troubled by nightmares of the Kaikōura Canyon, also a product of the region’s volatile geology, “a hungry mouth, flicking out its tongue against my back, wanting to swallow me whole”. While Tauk flees to Wellington, taking up busking on the streets, Ari befriends the neighbour’s precocious and hilarious daughter Beth, also eight. She forces Ari to watch Django Unchained, which becomes their inspiration for their escapades. And there is something Tarantino-esque about the world they live in, full of dangerous men, gangs and stomach-churning violence. Ari’s Uncle Stu beats and rapes his wife Kat; his very presence turns the air around Ari into “tiny splinters that get into your fingers and toes and have to be poked out with sewing needles”. Ari has a heartbreaking habit of plaster himself whenever he feels hurt. Hearing what’s happening to his Aunt, he uses “the rest of the box of plasters on my ears”.

In a third perspective we meet Jade, fleeing her abusive boyfriend for a night away with her cousin Sav, where she meets the beautiful Toko on a beach. Her and Sav live in the House, previously owned by her drug lord father, who was murdered in a gang coup. The novel’s central narrative questions are who Jade and Toko are, and what happened to all of their parents. They are easy characters to root for, and I was gripped by their misadventures and what would happen to them. The ending is bittersweet, hopeful but with a terrible sting in the tail.

Auē means to howl or to wail in te reo Māori, and at its heart this book is about the epidemic of domestic violence in New Zealand, an epidemic that seems to be accelerating as it is in Australia. Manawatu states that the book was in part dedicated to the memory of Glen Bo Duggan, who was murdered at 11 by his mother’s boyfriend. Glen, Manawatu writes, needed a “taniwha [spirit] 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”. In Auē she tears down the walls, and it is awful.

It’s about the intergenerational nature of this violence, how ruinous lack of tenderness breeds further ruin. The violence is strongly gendered, the men incapable of expressing themselves except through fists. Jade’s father beats her and her mother “to tear up the earth beneath him. Or the walls. And the people. Just to see better, just for a moment’s fucken clarity. Just to see who, where, what the fuck he was”. Jade struggles to find love without pain, believing the two cannot be separated. She lives for the apologies, but “the one-mores were piling up. One more beating, one more toke, one more drink, one more shot. It was something of a dying”.

If lack of tenderness is the cause of all this suffering, aroha, love, is the answer. Throughout Auē love comes to the rescue, even if it is often thwarted. Culture and belonging are key to this love. Whether it is the tangis that the families attend to grieve for their dead, the stories that the parents tell their children, or the music Tauk and his father so love, culture forges bonds that might help them survive, bring them back together. It’s difficult thing, this cultural survival, and Ari and Tauk have to navigate the complexities of being Māori on colonised land. Ari laments his pale skin; “I wish I looked like I was Māori,” he says, “Like my mum. Like Tauk. I mean, I looked like Tauk but I didn’t have his skin”.

The writing is cinematic, the dialogue heightened, the action coming in staccato bursts. I enjoyed the use of symbolism throughout, particularly the birds that decorate the book’s cover, and Ari and Tauk’s grandmother’s pearl earring. It reminded me of Tim Winton, or the recent novels by Douglas Stuart and Paul Mendez in its depiction of people living hard times.

Gay rating: not gay.

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