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‘Making up a story felt like a plaster’ [book review]

A review of Auē by Becky Manawatu

In the glossary at the end of Becky Manawatu’s searing debut, the Māori word ‘auē’ is defined as an ‘interjection showing distress’, or as a verb: ‘to cry, wail, howl’. As a title, it couldn’t be more perfect: Auē is indeed a howl of a novel, a long and remarkably sustained note of anguish punctuated by intense moments of love. A story about violence, friendship, family and the power of words, it is a song of despair but also of hope, a plea to find and nurture even the smallest shafts of light in an increasingly darkened world.

Cover image Aue

Narrated by four voices across the first and third persons, Auē weaves together past and present strands of narrative into a rich but surprisingly lucid novel whose back-and-forth structure does much to drive the plot. From the very opening pages, in which our youngest narrator, eleven-year-old Ārama (or Ari), and his soon-to-be best friend Beth try to rescue a baby rabbit being torn apart by a pair of weka, Manawatu writes with compelling urgency, each scene described in language that is immediate, vivid and often distressing. The rabbit’s mutilated body and the children’s visceral reactions set the tone for a novel that would contain a shocking amount of violence were it not for Manawatu’s sensitive handling of her subject, poetic prose and ability to flip the coin so deftly. Ari and Beth’s encounter with the rabbit is brief, bloody and frightening. Yet it also marks the beginning of a deep and lasting friendship that will come to be one of the novel’s strongest rays of light.

After his parents die in a tragic accident, Ari is sent to live with Aunty Kat and Uncle Stuart on a farm some distance from where he grew up. Taken there by his older brother, Taukiri, he is left behind with a small selection of belongings as ‘Tauk’, who was also involved in the fatal car crash, sets out to run away as far as he can from his former life. Uncle Stuart is a violent, unpredictable man, and the domestic abuse that goes on inside the farmhouse seems to spill over into scenes from the past in which we meet Jade, a young woman trying to escape gang life. Jade’s, Taukiri’s and Ari’s stories are interlinked, watched over by the boys’ mother, Aroha, whose ghostly voice is occasionally carried through on the wind. As the narrative strands begin to merge, Auē takes on the pacing of a thriller, and the climax when it comes is a masterpiece of suspenseful storytelling.

Yet despite having won a prize for crime fiction, Auē is not a thriller. It has a distinctly literary bent, with a strong focus on language both as used by Manawatu and as a central pillar within the story itself. Peppered with untranslated phrases of te reo (‘the [Māori] language’) and concerned with its decline in everyday life, the novel also draws heavily on song, folklore and fairy tales, and experiences of reading as a child. This, combined with Manawatu’s often dreamlike prose and layers of imagery pulled from the natural world – waves, bees, birds – gives it a timeless, magic, near fable-like quality that is at odds with the firmly contemporary setting evinced by references to technology, film and pop songs.

With its well-developed characters and the strong sense of connection at its core, Auē is rooted in Māori culture but has a far wider-reaching voice. Manawatu speaks with confidence on universal themes: racism and abuse in spaces that should provide safety, the fragility of childhood, our need to tell stories. After the tragedy that upends his life, Ari takes to sticking plasters on unbroken skin in an attempt to staunch the pain, and Manawatu extends this metaphor as far as she can, with Ari and Beth increasingly using fantasy to cope with real life. ‘Making up a story felt like a plaster, one that covered the sorer places not on your skin,’ Ari observes. Later, too, aspects of Jade’s and Aroha’s stories are called into question, a slight smudge of unreliability that doesn’t impact on the essence of the novel but rather makes us wonder what purpose language can serve for people who desperately need to heal.

The scars left by loss and violence run deep throughout this novel, with physical aggression appearing in every storyline – it leaves no character untouched. Even walk-on parts like May, a brief acquaintance of Taukiri’s, are not immune to bloodshed, much of which is directed at women and children. The child’s perspective is crucial and most heartbreaking here; we see it in Ari’s fixation on plasters, but also his and Beth’s obsession with the movie Django Unchained, which drips a brutality into their games both distinct from and tightly enmeshed with that which Ari experiences at home. At times, this gives us moments of lightness – Beth’s assumed American swagger is perfectly observed – but it also masks a deep-seated fear that transfers to the reader as both plot and violence thicken.

Though it can occasionally feel unrelenting, with the reader perhaps wondering if certain acts of cruelty were entirely necessary, Manawatu’s control of what could be an unwieldy narrative gives the sense that she knows what she is doing. By contrasting violence with the relentless hope that Ari in particular embodies, she has written a book about the human spirit, about hidden wells of strength and the sustaining power of love. Auē is an assured debut, a haunting work of fiction, and a masterclass in beautiful storytelling from a novelist who hopefully has much more to share with us.

Auē by Becky Manawatu is published in the UK by Scribe. Many thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for so kindly providing a review copy.


One thought on “‘Making up a story felt like a plaster’ [book review]

  1. I’ve just finished reading Auē and I’m still processing it – it is a challenging read with a big emotional load, the type of story that makes you sad and angry while reading it. Super well written, that’s for sure!


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