“Taukiri and I drove here in Tom Aiken’s truck. We borrowed it to move all my stuff. Tom Aiken helped. Uncle Stu didn’t. This was my home now.”
Brave words from an orphaned boy dropped with remote, dysfunctional whanau. He watches his brother drive away. He says he’ll come back as soon as he can, but we wait with Ārama as the story unfolds and Becky Manawatu breaks our hearts. “Uncle Stu made people doubt they existed, and when you doubted you existed long enough, you started to disappear.” But even this lost little boy finds friendship with Tom Aiken’s sassy daughter (as good a depiction of kids’ friendship as you’ll find in any classic) and comfort with the dog, Lupo, until Uncle Stu fucks that up, too. Uncle Stu does a lot of fucking up. And he’s just the start.
Ārama pins the story and we keep coming back to him, but we delve off into the lives of other characters that brought him to this pass, the stories all inevitably leading to the farm.
There are flashes of kindness leafed between the cruelty: going back a generation, Toko helps Jade find a place of calm. She’s on the run from the Mob, her father murdered, her man jealous and cruel. And yet, by the sea, unexpectedly she finds love. “…she felt like a musical note…a lyric…let loose in the world, unable to be grasped or captured by anyone. Not ever again.” Hope is not something she is used to. “The sound of the sea nearby promised green. She was used to angrier colours, dirtier ones. Blood-red and bruise-black stains. Sounds that promised stains upon the stains.” Jade blossoms with Toko, away from the mob house. I wish that story had a happy ending, but Manawatu is nothing if not brutally realistic. “What’s harder and meaner than wood? … there’s a crunch. A soft sound like a fistful of bird’s eggs being squeezed.”
Gang life. That cycle of violence that spreads and poisons. Each angry testosterone fueled action demanding an escalating reaction until every relationship is cemented by fear. I don’t know the reality of this. Becky Manawatu writes like she knows.
The writing is terrific, particularly when the story comes back to the 8 year old Ārama, waiting for his brother. Man, I love that kid. He has a humour so poignant I felt ashamed for laughing. His uncle calls his aunt a useless C.U.N.T at tea time (swearing is OK if you spell it). “I’d never heard that word before, but I could tell it was a bad one because even the pot plant on the windowsill seemed to stop what it was doing.”
With such a light touch in the writing, Manawatu lifts this story right up. I hated Once Were Warriors (to which Auē is constantly compared) because the brutality was one-dimensional and relentless. This story is far more nuanced: there are degrees of viciousness, and the sadness is different for everyone. Ārama’s aunt knows what she has lost. His mother disappears in guilt and grief. His brother cannot find his way. And the little boy thinks about his sadness like a companion. “Crying in my old room felt different to crying at the farm. On the farm it scared me to cry, because no one might stop it.”
Ārama has plasters. His aunt buys them for him. He uses them to cover up where it hurts. He always has a few packs on hand and when his feelings hurt he plasters. But this is not a story about covering up. In the end, you have to peel away the covers and see beneath and I hope, perhaps, that the exposure Auē offers into that brutal world will mean the real life Āramas and Jades and yeah, even the Uncle Stus of this world are seen and get the love and help they need.