October 24, 2021
I gobbled Becky Manawatu’s novel over three days. It is a quintessentially New Zealand novel, which most reminds me of The Bone People, by Keri Hulme.
Like that famous novel, Auē is a powerful mix of violence and beauty. It starts with a young boy being dropped off at his aunty’s after an accident has killed his parents. Ari has to adapt to a new way of life on a farm near Kaikoura after the ‘bright lights’ of Cheviot.
Luckily for him, he has a ready-made friend living next door. Beth is also eight, is living with her father. On their first day together, Beth is wild enough to eat worms for a dare, and willing to kill a rabbit to put it out of its misery when weka are eating it alive.
These two kids are at the centre of the story. How Ari ended up there unfolds over the course of the novel, which includes a girl raised in a gang house and a brother (Taukiri) who flees to the North Island to escape his past and to try to find a new place in the world.
Ari must make a new life with an Aunty who is kind of sharp, but more fun when she’s away from the farm, and a horrible uncle who wrecks everything just by being in the room, with his anger and his unpredictability. Ari escapes to Beth’s house to live in an imaginative, adventurous world where they can pretty much do what they want.
Taukiri is like any teenager let loose on the world after losing his parents then dropping off his brother and trying not to think about that, finding his way with a guitar and a surfboard, and falling for the wrong girl.
The third strand in the story is Jade’s story. She’s a young girl growing up in a gang house. How she connects to these other two becomes clearer as the story unfolds. Hers is a hate story and a love story, and takes the reader to some places they might not want to go, but which feel so real that you can’t easily let it go at the end of the novel.
You understand why her childhood books have the stench of where they’ve come until her new family cleanses them with wildflowers, signalling her arrival at somewhere better.
It feels like an important book for kiwis to read, to understand what it’s like to suddenly have to find your way when the steadiness you have known falls away. It’s also about what it’s like to be a vulnerable kid who doesn’t get a say in where they live and with whom. The reader sits on the stairs with Ari to hear beatings happening in the house at night, followed by sudden cancellation of the next day’s plans. All because Uncle Stu can’t handle his woman having any fun away from him and his power over her.