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  • Writer's pictureNZ Booklovers

Auē by Becky Manawatu

Updated: Aug 23, 2022

When I finished Becky Manawatu’s extraordinary novel I wanted to start again and try to make better sense of it. It’s complex, with multiple narrators telling their stories as if they all sang from the same song sheet – their waita – of pain and distress.

Auē (the verb) means to cry, howl, groan, wail, bawl. When used as an interjection it is an expression of astonishment or distress; and both meanings can be applied to the title of the book, which superbly reveals both the wail and the astonishment of each of the characters as their tragedies unfold with a tragic inevitability.

Auē (the book) is a braided river which leaves a single source, separates and then finally reunites in a latent, joyous rush to the sea. It is at once tender and terrifying, and has been compared to both Alan Duff’s Once were Warriors and Keri Hulme’s, The Bone People.

Like The Bone People which, in 1984 won The New Zealand Book Award for Fiction and the Pegasus Prize for Literature in 1985, and then went on to win the Booker Prize; Auē is also a debut novel. And like The Bone People which deals with the disturbing themes of violence and neglect, Auē and has struck a similar chord with judging panels.

So far, the book has won the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction; the MITOQ best first book of fiction; and the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel. I say so far, because it is almost certain that these are just some of the accolades Manawatu’s debut novel will attract.

But, in a final comparison to its forbears, this novel appears to be courting less controversy for its portrayal of violence within marginalised communities and households. While some have complained that the book reinforces stereotypes. I say that stereotypes exist; that’s why they are stereotypes, but Auē is also redemptive, demonstrating that people can leave their past behind. That there is light in darkness.

And I think that, unlike its predecessors, more than 40 years on, Auē has arrived at a more enlightened time; a long-overdue time when there is a hunger for stories that acknowledge the good, the bad and the ugly of our shared history and colonial past; a time when most New Zealanders celebrate Te Reo Māori.

I certainly hope so.

Reviewer: Peta Stavelli

Mākaro Press available in NZ.

Scribe Publications available in Australia, the UK and the US.

NZ cover is shown here.


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