Review: Auē by Becky Manawatu
Trigger Warnings: This novel contains domestic abuse, trauma to animals, violence, drug use, suicide and sexual assault.
“All those years ago, it is still beautiful to see two creatures under the spell of lovely things. Lovely thoughts, lovely wishes. Their own loveliness. But they’re fools in love. Tangata whenua, we have myth and legend, not fairy tales. Have they forgotten who they are?”
It was David Foster Wallace who wrote that every love story is a ghost story, and Becky Manawatu's debut novel Auē echoes that line, or haunts it.
Auē is the last of the Jan Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction finalists, but before I dive into my echo chamber for the review, I wanted to have a look at all 4 finalists as they stack up against each other.
Becky Manawatu is the only female author of the four. This ratio may present an argument for bias, but I think meritocracy reigns here. These finalists all merit their place in the shortlist. And anyway, the last two winners of the prize were female.
Auē is the only novel to include two of our national languages: Te reo Maori and English. Carl Shuker does allow his main character Elizabeth Taylor to say 'Morena' in passing at the hospital, but Auē has enough Te reo in its narrative to piss Don Brash off and its inclusion - nay, embrace is one of the reasons this novel's waiata is so loud and so clear. Further, Manawatu uses Te Reo to balance the brutality of what is sometimes written in English - one conversation at a Tangi, so filled with compassion and humour is an easy counterweight to a chapter laden with violence and brutality. Pearly Gates - as much as I loved it - was a very Pakeha novel and would be enriched by a bit of cultural diversity in it's characters. Halibut on the Moon is set in America, with American characters, with a slight nod to Native Americans and indigenous people.
Of the four novels, two main characters are men and two are female. Three novels are set in New Zealand - Wellington, 'Timaru' and Kaikoura - while one is set abroad (USA). On a personal level, the sense of place in these novels is important, and novels in NZ, "local" novels easily drum up loyalty and enthusiasm while making them more accessible and memorable.
And so, to Auē.
“Taukiri was born into sorrow. Auē can be heard in the sound of the sea he loves and hates, and in the music he draws out of the guitar that was his father’s. It spills out of the gang violence that killed his father and sent his mother into hiding, and the shame he feels about abandoning his eight-year-old brother [Arama] to a violent home. But Ārama is braver than he looks, and he has a friend and his friend has a dog, and the three of them together might just be strong enough to turn back the tide of sorrow. As long as there’s aroha to give and stories to tell and a good supply of plasters.
To attempt a plot overview of Auē is difficult because the characters and events intersect and reveal themselves in an order not chronological but like a good mystery, a puzzle fragment at a time. The fragments, often violent, or sad, or beautiful or funny, all perfectly fit each other and create something more than their parts, but defy a easy summation. Perhaps I'm cutting corners, perhaps I don't want to try to summarise it because I'm going to butcher it and get it wrong. Manawatu is clever and Auē is cleverly constructed. There you go. Read this book.
Grief is a central character. It is confronted, ignored, hidden, denied, smashed up and sworn at. I'm not the first reviewer to reckon that Arama, Beth & Lupo belong in a Waititi film. The darkness, as ever, bearable for the lightness that shines in through the cracks. Sometimes the lightness is Fish and Chips or lollie mixtures from the dairy, and they are enough.
Manawatu doesn't shy away from the hard stuff and I'm not going to gloss over the fact that this book isn’t filled with violence and trauma and sadness. It has been called a mix between Once Were Warriors and The Bone People, if that serves as a measure of its stress. Depending on your sensitivity perhaps the balance is not enough between beauty and stress, light and dark, but ultimately hope and grief grow together and are triumphant.
Two more reasons why I really loved this book: 1. It follows a good old fashion narrative arc: a long exposition building to a great climactic scene and a deeply satisfying resolution. It is well written and literary without being smug or basic. It is devastating but enables you to rebuild from the devastation.
2. This book demonstrates so beautifully the difference between Family and Whanau. At the risk of sounding like an ignorant white girl, Aue has for me, shown the beauty and spirit of Te Reo Maori, especially alongside English and I've not read a novel that incorporates it so well, even to the most casual beginner speaker of Te Reo.