Aue Another Superb New Zealand Novel


AUÉ (2022)

By Becky Manawatu

Scribe Publications, 363 pages.





In the Māori language aué is an exclamation of surprise, alarm, or distress. Its multiple meanings depend upon the context in which it’s used, a bit like “holy crap or OMG!” in English.


In New Zealand, Becky Manawatu’s new novel, aué connotes distress most of the time, but also astonishment. Her novel will certainly draw comparisons to the late Keri Hulme’s masterpiece the bone people. Like it, Aué involves Māori living on the social edges. It probes three generation’s worth of damage wrought by marginalization, alcohol, drugs, gangs, and violence.


At its heart are two parentless brothers, the older Taukiri (“Tauk”) and young Arama (“Ari”). Tauk is sick of his life and about to take off for parts unknown to forge a new path. Before he goes, he places Ari with his aunt Kat and uncle Stuart in a small farming village near Auckland. He promises Ari he will return, though he has no idea how or when. He packs his clothes and guitar into his vehicle and straps his surfboard on the roof, the latter of which he plans to hock or sell if he needs money. Ari is crushed.


Kat is the sister of Tauk and Ari’s mother Jade, who disappeared shortly after her husband Toko was murdered. Theirs was a love story that parallels a Māori romance. Toko rescued her from a cycle of violence. Her best friend Savannah was murdered by Hash and Jade was then raped and claimed as the “girlfriend” of Hash’s gang mate Coon. Toko once tried to help Coon, but that was a mistake. To further complicate matters, Jade’s farther Hénare (“Head”) was also murdered and his wife Felicity also fled.


Kat is kind to Ari, but Stuart is a sadistic monster. One of Ari’s few comforts is his neighbor Tom, whose wife left him many years before and has long held a flame for Kat and contempt for Stuart’s treatment of her. Tom also has a daughter, Beth, who becomes Ari’s best friend. Beth and Ari construct an us-against-the-world fantasy world that’s often fashioned from Hollywood movies. Beth tries to bolster the fearful Ari’s confidence by calling him “Django,” derived from their inappropriate and clandestine viewing of the Quentin Tarantino film Django Unchained. Nice try on Beth’s part, but Ari is no Django; he’s so sensitive that every hurt, physical or psychological, commands application of multiple plasters (Band-Aids as we call them in North America).


You might infer that a lot of anguish, trauma, and violence will go down before things get better. Aué often reads like a fictionalized version of the hidden injuries of social class and poverty. Some reviewers have aptly noted parallels to Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain. Manawatu paints several portraits of how hard it is for those living on the social margins to do the right thing when faced with externals that undermine good intentions. If you’ve ever wondered where the lines between victimization and heroism lie, Manawatu will further blur those boundaries, though she also clarifies them in several remarkable encounters of the unforeseen kind.


For Pakéha (white) readers, Aué can be a tough read at times. Manawatu uses Māori names and phrases and expects you to uncover their meanings. (There is an index of sorts.) Hope occurs in trickles and seeps, not torrents. The painful aspects make it an honest novel, even when you’re tempted to do as Ari, cover yourself in plasters, and cry out “aué!”  


I found it admirable that Manawatu did not make undue efforts to make the Māori world more accessible for white readers.  As in the United States, there is in New Zealand an increasing trend toward people of color expressing themselves in their own terms rather than catering to prevailing expectations. If this limits potential audiences, shame lands on those afraid to go outside of their comfort zones.


A more productive way to think of all this is that aué can only be expressed positively when those benefitting from marginalization pull The Other from the fringes to the center. Gangs, violence, and social damage generally occur in absence and want, not presence and plentitude.


Rob Weir  


PS: The correct spelling of aué should have a straight line across the e, not an accent mark. I simply couldn’t find a keyboard function that allowed me to do that.


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