Ladies and gentlemen we have a horse race. Below, books editor Catherine Woulfe offers up odds on the fiction contenders. But first, here’s the complete list of finalists for the 2020 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.
THE JANN MEDLICOTT ACORN PRIZE FOR FICTION
Auē, by Becky Manawatu (Mākaro Press)
Pearly Gates, by Owen Marshall (Vintage, Penguin Random House)
A Mistake, by Carl Shuker (Victoria University Press)
Halibut on the Moon, by David Vann (Text Publishing)
Crafting Aotearoa: A Cultural History of Making in New Zealand and the Wider Moana Oceania, edited by Karl Chitham, Kolokesa U Māhina-Tuai, Damian Skinner (Te Papa Press)
Protest Tautohetohe: Objects of Resistance, Persistence and Defiance, edited by Stephanie Gibson, Matariki Williams, Puawai Cairns (Te Papa Press)
We Are Here: An Atlas of Aotearoa, by Chris McDowall and Tim Denee (Massey University Press)
McCahon Country, by Justin Paton (Penguin Random House)
Dead People I Have Known, by Shayne Carter (Victoria University Press)
Shirley Smith: An Examined Life, by Sarah Gaitanos (Victoria University Press)
Wild Honey: Reading New Zealand Women’s Poetry, by Paula Green (Massey University Press)
Towards the Mountain: A Story of Grief and Hope Forty Years on from Erebus, by Sarah Myles (Allen & Unwin)
THE MARY AND PETER BIGGS AWARD FOR POETRY
Moth Hour, by Anne Kennedy (Auckland University Press)
How to Live, by Helen Rickerby (Auckland University Press)
Lay Studies, by Steven Toussaint (Victoria University Press)
How I Get Ready, by Ashleigh Young (Victoria University Press)
Headline news: Elizabeth Knox is a non-starter and I will never understand it, but at least I can picture her as a great green dragon, mostly benevolent, draped over a pile of sweet American cash. Also! Vincent O’Malley is out. Done. Somehow, that not-very-good book about Erebus snuck in ahead of The New Zealand Wars: Ngā Pakanga o Aotearoa. Judges, again, WTH? I will never understand it.
I asked whether judges were given any guiding principles and was told they get a comprehensive handbook of guidelines. Then I asked, OK, so what are some of the top-line overarching sorts of guidelines, please, so I can sensibly pick apart their decisions, and got this: “Judges make their decisions independent of a book’s commercial success or otherwise. Their overarching focus is on each book’s literary merit.” Which, fine – that means they were not thinking about Knox’s six-figure US deal or her absolute storming of the bestseller charts here or the million and one re-prints of The Absolute Book.
But what I really don’t get is how you can be ambivalent about The Absolute Book. How you could like it enough to bung it on the longlist but not enough for it to make the second cut. I can see that some readers would be like: fuck no, fantasy, genre, ugh, get off me, and I can see that some would find it baffling due to length or general weirdness, or just want to buck against the trend, but those that like it seem to be all-in. Semi-deranged, a la Dan Kois. I hope at least one judge did feel that way, and that blood was spilled in Knox’s violent defence.
However. Enough grumbling. Becky Manawatuu-uuu! Auē for the win. In a minute, mini-reviews of her book, and the three she’s up against for the big prize, the $55,000. But just quickly first: Ashleigh Young should take out poetry. We Are Here, or failing that McCahon Country, for illustrated non-fiction. Shayne Carter for general non-fiction. And next year please can there be a creative non-fiction category.
The judges decide on winners next month. We hope they have got all wonky, contrary and plainly wrong impulses out of their systems by then. We’ll find out on 12 May.
Reading this book felt like the first time I read Janet Frame, or Keri Hulme, or Patricia Grace. Wild and radical and absolutely electric. What you’re reading is magic that’s zoomed into a woman’s brain and bloomed in there and then flung itself onto the page. It is Manawatu’s first novel and it is dedicated to her cousin Glen Bo Duggan, who was killed by his mum’s boyfriend when he was 10. He needed a taniwha to save him, she writes, a taniwha to smash down the walls of his house and show everyone what was going on behind them.
Auē is her taniwha. It is fierce and rare and splendid, tight with muscle and rippling with ropes of story. Mongrel Mob. Domestic violence. Mums and kids and lovers versus a sour, malignant masculinity. Shit it’s fast: I basically didn’t sleep for two days. But the language is stunning, too. So you’re reading lickety-split because you need to know what happens, that the kids are okay, but you’re also ankle-tapped every couple of pars by just the most gorgeous phrasing. We ran a big fat taster, the whole first chapter, here.
If the judges are looking to welcome a superstar, to cast forward, to say something real about Aotearoa right now, they’ll go for Auē.
We put the odds, hopefully, at 2/1.
Okay, so this is Owen Marshall at his Owen Marshalliest: comprehensively taking the piss out of parochial New Zealand via a South Island mayor who is also a real estate agent and a farm boy and a former head boy and nearly maybe an All Black. He’s called Pearly. Pearly! Oh, god, where to start. So many bone-dry lines. “Pearly had real affection and concern for his home region, indeed for the country as a whole. He liked to see decent intentions and decent people succeed, as he had himself, and he rarely doubted his own judgement. Pearly was his own role model.”
The story is of Pearly’s comeuppance, or rather comedownance, and it kind of mooches along; you’re really there for Marshall’s relentless gentle teasing and for all the lamb roasts and the lawn-mowing, and for sentences like this one: “The sun had gone down on its knees and flamed through the line of macrocarpas at the end of the grounds.”
Mark Broatch reviewed the book for Landfall just before he was named as a judge and spokesperson for the fiction category; it’s a very down-the-middle review, lots of observation and outlining of plot and tone, no raving but neither any rubbishing. I think he liked it. He’s not given to raves, Mark. But did he like it enough?
Not The Mistake, which is how everyone says it. Which is funny.
What I love about A Mistake is that it goes in on data and how sunlight is not always the best disinfectant. How sometimes transparency actually really fucks things up. Perverse incentives; lovely phrase. I spent five years of my life spitting about how performance pay and NCEA rankings were going to ruin education and Shuker does the same here but for medicine – his protagonist is a female surgeon adamant that making public the proportion of each surgeon’s patients that die or suffer other adverse events will be dangerous. Because surgeons will avoid risky operations and take over too quickly from people they’re meant to be training, and because some will leave medicine altogether and there are not enough surgeons in New Zealand for that to be safe. He pulls that all together by having the female surgeon make a mistake, and also by forcing us to watch the Challenger fall apart, step by super-detailed technical step.
Also, Dr Elizabeth Taylor is terrifically cutting and calm, the warrior feminist we all wish we could be. Where you or I would end up flustered and blushing and conceding, Taylor says things like, “Look, sorry, I just want to continue a bit here without you thinking me tendentious or a bitch or anything because this is important to us.”
I think with the other Elizabeth out of the way Shuker has nearly maybe got this sewn up.
Halibut on the Moon
This is on the blurb so it’s not a spoiler: this is a novel about the last days of a suicidal father and it ends with him actually killing himself. David Vann’s father did kill himself and this is his imagining of how that was for his dad.
Odd setup, eh? You’re biting a bullet of sorts yourself, the moment you pick up the book. It is just as grim as you expect. And, given relatively current affairs, excruciatingly badly timed: at various points, the dad pictures killing his kids, his ex, his brother, as well as himself, and sometimes he forms actual plans to do so, and you’re never at all sure which way he’s going to go, because he is clearly extremely unwell.
This does make for some transcendentally weird passages – in my favourite scene, he gallops on all fours through a paddock, chasing a terrified farmer – and a lot of times where you’re like “well huh, yeah I guess you would be thinking about that”.
There is also some very clear political stuff about guns. Here’s the suicidal man musing on another person’s murder-suicide. “He had a big gun collection. That simple. The guns were there, and everything in her life was not possible, and that’s when a gun bridges the gap. The gun brings the pieces back together. It’s like a power to bend time and event, the only thing that can fight momentum …”
The book is beautifully, masterfully written. But there is little pleasure to be found here, obviously little hope. It would be an exceptionally bleak and I think unpopular choice.
(BTW, I got some emails when this was longlisted asking how David Vann, an American who holds a professorship in England, is eligible. His website and social media aren’t much help on that front. Answer: he and his wife lived in the Far North, just near Taupo Bay, for something like 14 years and he has been a permanent resident for ages. They recently sold up, the awards PR people tell me, “because his writing income declined and he couldn’t afford the mortgage. He decided to live on a boat and is presently in California, completing the new main hull of his aluminium trimaran. Then he’ll be sailing back to New Zealand in it. New Zealand is his home.”)