Auē! – a cry of distress – calling out throughout this extraordinary novel of fear and violence, of families torn apart and people trying to find connection and safety.
Taukiri leaves his brother Ārama with Aunty Kat on her farm in Kaikoura after a family tragedy. He heads to Wellington, trying to get by, trying to forget. Skip to the past: Jade is a young woman who had “only known life with a man” – who missed her chance to get away the first time, so doesn’t want to miss her second chance. Auē is told through the points of view of Taukiri, Ārama and Jade, but is populated with many other rich and vibrant characters, plus the linking voice of a spirit that blows like the wind, “I am drowned”, twisting around the characters, trying to break free but tied by the sorrow of her relatives.
Auē starts relatively paced, feeling like a familiar story: confused children, women trapped in abusive relationships, young men turning to drugs to dull their memories and their pain. But as you read, you empathise so much with the characters, that the mystery of what exactly has happened and how the people are related to each other is totally absorbing. And the tension of the last few chapters almost unbearable.
Taukiri is someone who loves the sea, he experiences his emotions and heightened experiences as waves that wash over him, but the sea is at the heart of his trauma, and drugs only help for so long: “There was a price for emptying your head. It emptied euphorically on the going out, sure, but all the junk flooded back eventually.” Ārama, eight years old, just wants Taukiri back, singing to him, calming his sleepless nights, teaching him to play the guitar, how to surf.
Ārama feels abandoned, even his Nanny doesn’t respond to any of the many many messages he leaves on her phone. Aunty Kat is nice, and the neighbours, Beth and her Dad Tom Aiken, are a refuge, but Kat’s husband Uncle Stu is one of the many abusive men in the novel, and Ārama never really feels safe. The little boy tries to comfort himself with sticking plasters; putting them over his heartbeat, over his eyes to keep the tears in.
For Taukiri, Ārama and Jade, there are periods when their lives don’t feel real, they feel they are ‘acting’ their lives rather than living them, feel their chance to enjoy existence has been stolen from them. They are all guarded in what they reveal of themselves, little Ārama: “I thought about how many terrible words there were, and how when they were let loose in the world, they sucked up all the air around them”, he and Beth escape into a fantasy world – based on Django unchained! Jade hears herself speaking and hears someone else after finally escaping from a gang house, and Taukiri drifts with his demons: “I painted her skin with so much blood”, living with the gnawing knowledge that Ārama is waiting for him, thinking that other boys had a bottom to their fall but that “The bottomlessness to my life was dizzying.”
The writing in Auē is immersive, the smattering of typos a jolt. It is a tale of heartbreak and violence, but there are lighter moments; the two children are charming and funny and keep themselves, and the reader, entertained. All the substantial characters in the book are illustrative of one of the book’s messages: “No one is just anything.” Reading Auē is a little like going to a tangi, as described by Ārama to Beth: you have to cry enough and laugh enough before being allowed to leave. A remarkable book.