Cover of book: Auē

Becky Manawatu

When Ari’s teenage brother drops him off at Aunty Kat’s farm, the eight-year-old persuades himself that Taukiri will be back soon. In the meantime, he just needs an endless supply of Band-Aids to cover up all the places that hurt, including his heart. As Ari holds on to his old life, “... my real life – not this one that felt like something I might wake up from”, Taukiri tries to forget. But the traumas that have long haunted the family won’t abandon him as easily he did Ari. There’s the sea that both repels and calls him, and the surfboard still strapped to his car that he can’t bear to part with but hasn’t been able to ride since the day that broke what was left of his family apart.

Ngāi Tahu woman Becky Manawatu’s debut novel, Auē, met with a sensational response when published in New Zealand. Similarities to Alan Duff’s classic Once Were Warriors had some Māori critics asking when they’d be allowed to move past this kind of story. But Auē was on that country’s bestseller list for months and it’s easy to see why. Manawatu’s writing is tender, concise and cinematic, the narrative populated as much by loving, supportive men as it is by broken, violent ones. Her superb incorporation of popular music recalls – perhaps not coincidentally – the Midas touch of Quentin Tarantino, whose Django Unchained serves as both motif and character development, representing the irrepressible spirit of children who find joy in the ugliest sides of life and the pall of colonialism that hovers over the story.

Manawatu slides between perspectives and time frames, abruptly introducing characters without losing command of the narrative, making revelations and connections at just the right time, the short chapters letting the story unfurl like a rich tapestry. At times, the violence approaches gratuitousness, but this is offset by Ari’s dogged refusal to unclench from the innocence life seems determined to take from him.

Ari avoids bad words because, when let loose in the world “they sucked up all the air around them”. He puts Band-Aids over his ears when Uncle Stu beats Aunty Kat, and stashes the gift-wrapped guitar Taukiri left for his birthday under the bed, ready for when his brother returns to teach him. It’s impossible not to want Ari to avoid the fate of the older characters, who struggle to play the cards dealt to them and with the whakamā – shame – that can cause even the most callused heart to seek forgiveness. But for some, repentance arrives too late and for others it never comes at all. 

Scribe Publications, 336pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 9, 2022 as "Auē, Becky Manawatu".

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Ruby Hamad is a writer and cultural critic.

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