Book Review: Auē by Becky Manawatu

It could be the monumental state of the world, watching countries unite and close down until further notice, that made me tearful and my throat tighten as I was reading Auē in isolation, but Manawatu’s style of storytelling caught me off guard for sure.

Auē (2019) by Becky Manawatu is a humbling word embrace, capturing the strength of aroha in the face of soul-destroying sorrow. Taukiri and Ārama, young brothers born unwittingly into New Zealand’s gang culture, are thrown into the deep end of life and forced to adapt to survive.

The blurb says that you can “turn back the tide of sorrow. As long as there’s aroha to give and stories to tell”. The tide of sorrow seems quite the literary feat for a debut novelist to tackle. Yet you plough through chapter to chapter absorbing strands of stories on gang violence, broken families, love and friendship and it becomes apparent that Manawatu is a master storyteller who’s been hiding her literary talents from us for too long. Tackling the tide of sorrow is achieved in Auē with the kind of beauty that catches your breath and stops you in your tracks.

The strands of stories become the bricks building climatically towards something monumental. It is compulsive to read, as compulsive as it is to jump in the ocean on a forty degree Summer’s day. It makes your bottom lip quiver and gets you a little hot and flustered at times. You go to bed to read on the day that Unity Books shuts indefinitely due to Level 3 COVID-19 and remember that your copy of Auē is stranded in the bookshop bunker, putting you on tenterhooks. So you drive half an hour from home to intercept it from bookshop isolation.

There are layers of stories, from the legend of Māui and stories passed through generations to the films Django, Unchained and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, that are entwined with the adventures of eight year old cousins Beth and Ārama. Throughout the novel Beth reenacts the violence she’s seen in Django while Ārama quietly yearns for whānau, aroha and bedtime stories on Māori mythology. The courage in the latter shines a spotlight on the violence in the former and it becomes a symbol of children’s susceptibility to their surroundings and how they adapt their behaviour to suit. The message is clear – violence breeds violence, aroha breeds aroha. With enough aroha the cycle of violence might end.

It was the untold stories that were the most powerful, though. They’re the stories you won’t forget. The women, silenced into submission at the hands of volatile brutes, appear like ghosts at the kitchen table with a black eye, or lay dead in a coffin at a tangi. Their stories were the loudest. Manawatu’s portrayal of violence toward women and how children grow into gang members is authentic, reminding us that this isn’t a work of fiction for some. When I worked in a New Zealand prison I imagined finding the strength to be the voice for female victims of gang violence, but never managed it. Manawatu has that strength.

To fictionalise New Zealand’s gang culture with such raw detail when we have as many gang members as we do is not a task to be undertaken by the faint-hearted. Manawatu doesn’t dance around the fact that her female characters suffer from inferiority both with physical strength and their place within the home, nor does she patronise them. It’s their overwhelming emotional strength that sets them aside from the men’s mind numbing misuse of their bench-pressed muscles. Yet Manawatu balances the complexities and intricacies of gang culture in New Zealand very well, and complex it is indeed.

This may be a story of sorrow but the many mediums of Manawatu’s storytelling will have you laughing when you shouldn’t and crying when you’re trying hardest not to. You’ll develop an affinity for all of the characters, even the gang members at times, and it reads like a Taika Waititi film, too.

Manawatu has portrayed how you really can “turn back the tide of sorrow. As long as there’s aroha to give and stories to tell” and it’s no surprise that Auē a finalist in the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction at The Ockhams 2020.

On a sidenote, the font and colour of Auē’s pages make it even more of a tasty morsel to devour in this month of isolation if you’ve got a copy. I’ll have my eyes open for more Mākaro Press publications from now on!

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