In the Māori language, an auē is an anguished wail, a cry from the heart. Among the frustrations likeliest to cause such a lament are domestic violence and racism. New Zealand writer Becky Manawatu explores both of these painful forms of dominion in her impressive debut novel.
Manawatu gave herself a big challenge with Auē: Not only does her novel explore two fraught forms of subjection, but she also splits her narrative into three distinct perspectives. Two of them are Māori brothers, 17-year-old Taukiri and 8-year-old Ārama. Their father has died, and their mother has disappeared, so Taukiri drives Ārama to their Aunty Kat and Uncle Stu’s farm in Kaikōura, a coastal town on New Zealand’s South Island. “I’ll be back as soon as I can,” Taukiri assures his brother, yet he’s convinced Ārama will be better off without him.
As Manawatu skillfully shows, that’s not necessarily true. Ārama finds support from his Aunty Kat and neighbors Beth and Tom Aiken, but Uncle Stu is a brute, the type of ruffian to give his wife a black eye over his latest grievance, and who snatches a letter written by Taukiri and burns it before Ārama can read it.
Ārama is so distressed by his dislocation that he covers his body in bandages to calm himself. It would be of greater help for Taukiri to return, but in his brother’s absence, Ārama is comforted by memories they’ve shared and his ownership of a bone carving he and Taukiri fashioned from the carcass of a dead baby whale.
The book’s third storyline follows Jade and Toko, who, years earlier, meet at a beach party after Jade’s cousin Sav helps her to escape an abusive boyfriend. Jade, too, contends with domestic problems; her mother, Felicity, is loving but has “a craving for drugs.”
The tension in Auē sometimes flags, and some key details are withheld too long, but overall Manawatu does a nice job of gradually revealing secrets and the intricacies of the characters’ myriad tragedies. Auē exposes the racism some New Zealanders feel toward Māoris, but it’s ultimately a hopeful work with a message worth remembering: Cries from the heart can be painful, but sometimes they get answered.