Auē by Becky Manawatu (Mākaro Press, 2019), 323 pp., $35
This is a story of whānau and the ties that bind us beyond life; that hold tight through our whakapapa. It is a story of the sea, of its life-giving and life-taking ability, which spans from a baby rocking in salty water in the belly of his māmā on a boat, to the ocean stealing away what’s left, spitting out reluctant shapes, offering isolation and comfort in its crash and lull. This is Auē.
This novel didn’t initially pull me in, perhaps because the trope of the orphaned boy felt too familiar; or perhaps because of the title, warning me that it could be a difficult read. The suggestion of gangs and violence felt like dangerous territory when telling Māori history. But as I persevered, the characters hooked me in the puku and wouldn’t let go.
Ārama’s eyes are sad while Taukiri’s are angry, according to eight-year-old Beth. When both boys appear to be orphaned, Taukiri, who is old enough to try a new life on his own, makes himself the third person to abandon his little brother Ārama with their Aunty Kat in Kaikoura. Their mother had said that things always come in threes: ‘He didn’t know I was trouble and that bad things happened to the people I loved.’
Beth, the same age as Ārama, lives next door with her dad, Tom. She has wild bravado where Ārama has gentle caution, but they both know loss – and this is binding. All of Ārama’s family are desperately trying to outrun violence, while Beth makes him face it head on by killing maimed animals and watching Django Unchained until they know the script by heart. Yet trying to be tough is not easy when Ārama’s Aunty Kat can’t really be herself with Uncle Stu around. His controlling, abusive presence chills any sense of whānau warmth she can muster; and Ārama develops a self-soothing technique as he wants for more than his aunt knows how to give. ‘I put my hand over my chest to find my heartbeat, then put about six plasters over the loudness.’
‘Auē’ means to howl or growl, to express astonishment or distress. And there is a high chance that you, as a reader, may do all of these things. The cover tells us that Taukiri was born into sorrow, yet that is not apparent in early chapters. It appears that the sorrow is fresh, recent, to be dealt with in the future, but in fact what this book does is weave an intricate pattern through the past – and the result is truly astonishing. His coming-of-age story is not dissimilar to that of any young man leaving home, yet his sense of needing to remove himself or not get close to anyone for fear of hurting them means he sleeps in his car, busks and does drugs to get by. His surfboard is like a talisman of the past, something he drives around with but won’t actually touch. In this way we understand the ocean has a part to play in his grief.
Manawatu has an ability to write grisly, horrifying details yet also keep one eye on our hearts. She builds tangible characters that have beauty and wonder, bright dreams and enduring strength, alongside others that you wish she could unwrite. There are many elements of this book that give a nod to Keri Hulme’s The Bone People. The young boy at the centre, the violence, the isolated South Island backdrop, the secret ‘Bones Bay’ all recall Hulme, but the most important similarity is the way both authors write with such earthy grace and pull you into a world that is as repelling as it is intriguing.
If, like me, you were initially wary of the theme and drive of this book, I implore you to carry on through any hesitation in the first few chapters. Persevere with these characters. When Jade and Toko arrive, we have no idea who they are. This is the beauty of them. Theirs is a timeless love story and their inclusion is what hooks me in. I want to know how they fit, why their lives are parallelling the stories of the two boys as they navigate their new worlds in very different ways. I read the italic words that start in the second section of the book without understanding exactly whose words they are. The realisation that this is a new voice, and one from the afterlife, sinks in as the book continues; and with this inclusion the author really shows her brilliance as story weaver. I had to let go of understanding everything at this point of the book and trust that if I let the chapters wash over me, immersed myself, understanding would come. ‘The sea rises up like a billowing sheet. Only dense, only weighty. Only packing a punch.’
Jade’s story introduces the vice of gang life, the sense that it never lets go; the way it perpetuates pain and ownership over its members. Her account is not all victimhood though: her memories of her parents are often safe, loved and stable. It is rather as she grows older and her parents are gone that her story becomes so harrowing. Her eventual freedom comes at a huge cost and, as we discover, she is never really free. The ability to write about te ao Māori in a way that acknowledges wairua, the connection of whakapapa and te taiao, the environment and the atua of those elements, is something that Manawatu does in a very natural and easily assimilated way. This awareness is an anchor, giving us depth and connection, where the violence disconnected and blurred: ‘And Tāwhiri-mātea must help her now. Must arm her now. Because she must fight now.’
There is a fine line when writing of te ao Māori in this way: there is the risk, in the licence that fiction brings, that the work might further damage Māori identity and perpetuate the effects of colonisation and marginalisation. Becky Manawatu walks this line carefully; it is clear that there have been conscious decisions along the way. Beautiful male role models, gentle Māori men, are present in this story, as are violent and drug-addicted ones. Lines of Māori songs are repeated, and they echo in the air as you read on in this story of unpacking a past to make sense of a future. After the publication of her own novel, Manawatu clarified in an article for The Spinoff that one song, ‘Akoako o te rangi’, which her character says was composed by a Pākehā, was in fact written by Emira Maewa (Flavell) Kaihau. The author didn’t refer to Kaihau or make it explicit that the character got it wrong in her acknowledments; but I applaud her for trying to correct this, and continuing the difficult conversation of identity, of growing up Māori yet pale-skinned. Of knowing your whakapapa but benefiting from white privilege. Understanding that she is unpacking these things as an author, knowing she has a sister in a gang, makes me feel comfortable with the story she has told. While as an author she may be realising ways she could have told things differently, the fact that she is unpacking this shows her integrity. The work itself is an incredible achievement.
This story is a slow entanglement. Once its grip has taken hold it is brutal and unforgiving yet beautiful and hopeful. It leaves so many questions and half-told connections that it could easily have a sequel. It was like feasting at a hākari: my puku was full but my eyes were still searching for dessert.
ARIHIA LATHAM is a writer and facilitator in Wellington. She is Ngāi Tahu Māori, Dutch, Norwegian, English and Irish. Her work has been published in two Huia short-fiction collections, Landfall, Verb and Oranui literary journals, Awa Wahine and Te Whē online journals. She has presented work at Litcrawl and Verb festival and the New Zealand Festival of the Arts. She can be found on Twitter and Instagram @writtenbyarihia