The first time I encountered Auē by Becky Manawatu, it wasn’t quite a book yet. As part of a program at the New Zealand Society of Authors, my job was to read an early draft and give some feedback. Manawatu’s manuscript was beyond doubt the most compelling early draft of a novel I had ever seen, and I could see a big future for it, if things went right.
It was also an unwieldy, many-tentacled taniwha (sea creature), trying to make a life on dry land; that is, it needed work. But it had two key things that are essential for good fiction and almost impossible to manufacture: voice and urgency. Here was a story that leapt off the page and into the reader’s imagination, taking hold of one’s heart and giving it a good squeeze. And that last part can hurt.
Well, things did go right. Spectacularly. Unusually for a first book, Auē won New Zealand’s most lucrative fiction prize, the Ockham’s Jann Medlicott Acorn prize for fiction, as well as the Ngaio Marsh award for best crime novel. It has received wide acclaim in New Zealand, and has been a bestseller for many months. Behind Manawatu was the support of an indie publisher, Makaro Press, and an eminent senior Māori writer, Renée, who mentored her until the manuscript found its final form. And now Auē has been published in Australia, also unusual for a New Zealand book.
Reading it again, now as a finished novel, did not disappoint. Auē is told through several points of view running simultaneously through the story: eight-year-old Ārama (Ari), his adult brother Taukiri (Tauk) and Taukiri’s birth mother, Jade. Later they are joined by a fourth perspective: Ari’s mother, Aroha, who observes from the afterlife. This complexity is not so much confusing as enticing: each character is bound within a perspective that limits what they can know about the story as a whole, and the plot reveals are masterful.
After their parents die, Ari is abandoned by his brother to stay with an aunt and distant-yet-threatening uncle. Taukiri runs away from his part of him in the death of his parents and the curse he’s been led to believe he is. And Jade tells her story from a past that will eventually catch up to the present, bringing all these strands together in a visceral and intense climax.
Much has been made of the violence in this novel, particularly gang violence; it is there right from the first chapter, in the unflinching cruelty of weka eating a live rabbit. I wonder about comparisons that have been made with other New Zealand literary successes, Once Were Warriors and The Bone People: the gentleness of Ari, and the power of love, are both central to Auē, and rival the darker elements of the story. Every character carries guilt, pain and whakamā – a Māori expression of shame – that underlie their decision making, even many of the characters who seem irredeemable. The role of friendship, exemplified by Ari’s friend Beth and her father de ella, Tom Aitken, provides light relief and safety, and a clear antidote to darkness and violence. Finally, music, the sea, birds, words, bees and the importance of stories enter the novel through imagery that appears in evocative waves, linking the various narratives and the passage of time. In so many ways, Auē is quite different from its 1980s literary predecessors, more hopeful and tender.
The expectation that Māori novels that include domestic or gang violence must be closely related is a strange view. Our writing and our writers are diverse, and there are infinite ways to tell our infinite stories. The risks that Manawatu has taken as a Māori writer in producing this complex work are most clear in some of the reviews by Māori readers, many of whom touch on whether the book or its characters are representing Māori people and society correctly, or whether the prejudices of colonialism have somehow been reinforced by its depictions of domestic and gang violence. This kind of reading has become common, and worries me. Of course authors should be aware of these questions, but the limitations placed on the writer by continuous vigilance to the responsibilities of the work can prevent us from attending fully to the wider possibilities of literature, all the things that fiction offers us as a form: expansive thinking, interiority, depth of feeling, the “vivid and continuous dream” described by John Gardner. This is the colonial project at its most insidious, I think; we who are subject to colonization are most likely to come under harsh scrutiny, and to be held back by it. And while we dedicate critical space to what is, essentially, an understandable defensiveness born of racism and historical injustice, we cannot write with the same freedom as those who do not share that history.
Novelists must understand all of the above, without doubt, but the form asks us to go beyond. In bringing to the page characters who maim, but also characters who love fiercely, Manawatu has had to enter the aching heart of this story and bring her characters back from dark places. Auē has done well because it is expertly crafted, but also because it has something indefinable: enthralling, puzzling, gripping and familiar, yet otherworldly. I do see us in it, but I also see more.