BooksDecember 16, 2019

The 10 best New Zealand fiction books of 2019


Presenting: the third installment in our best-of-the-year series, put together by the Spinoff and various benevolent elves. This time it’s fiction. These are the books that moved us, that we walk around with in our heads, and that we are giving for Christmas, smug with the certainty that they’re absolutely kick-ass.

See also:

The 10 best NZ non-fiction books of 2019

The 10 best NZ children’s books of 2019

The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox (Victoria University Press, $35, review here)

Michelle Langstone writes

Elizabeth Knox is an author whose mind moves so swiftly you can almost hear it crackle when you meet her in person. Her deep and innate intelligence and curiosity are so boldly and beautifully on display in The Absolute Book. So much has been written about it, there’s almost no point going on, except to say that there is no other New Zealand author who gets into my dreams the way Elizabeth does. When I read this book, I had several dreams about trees in one week, and I felt the gauze of other worlds brushing my skin regularly. She conjures things out of the air as if it were no trouble at all, that’s how good she is. 

A Mistake by Carl Shuker (Victoria University Press, $30, review here)

We’re nicking this from Maggie Trapp’s review in the Washington Post, because all our helper elves took it as a given that someone else would be raving about A Mistake. “Oh, Shuker of course,” they’d say – then write about something else. 

“In A Mistake, New Zealand author Carl Shuker conveys in gorgeous, heartbreaking detail the shock of catastrophe and the ways we try to make sense of disaster after the fact … The novel’s protagonist, Elizabeth Taylor, is, at 42, the youngest and only female consultant general surgeon at Wellington Hospital. She is also consumed by the long-ago story of the 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster, the ‘most beautiful story of error’ she’s ever read … A Mistake asks us to view and review Elizabeth’s own missteps, which, seen from conflicting viewpoints, appear increasingly disastrous.”

Afakasi Woman by Lani Wendt Young (OneTree House, $29)

Catherine Woulfe writes: 

Lani Wendt Young is shouting in this collection of short stories, shouting with joy sometimes, or laughter, but often with a hot righteous anger, and with the force of generations. 

The collection was first published digitally in 2012, winning the University of South Pacific’s Fiction Prize. There are new stories in this version.

Among the many that have stuck with me: ‘Don’t Tell’, in which a young girl reports sexual abuse by a family member and is persecuted for it, and ‘We Love the Samoan People!’, a vignette of a hotel check-in counter: “Mata politely averts her eyes from the palagi who has so much #whiteMan confidence that he can wear a lavalava without the security of shorts underneath.”

The Father of Octopus Wrestling by Frankie McMillan (Canterbury University Press, $27.99)

Emma Neale writes: 

Frankie has opened my eyes to how sinuous, flexible and varied flash fiction can be; and the interlinked sequences here become fascinating labyrinths of comedy, sideways inference, and pathos. Her understanding of how goddamn odd humans are is so refreshing, it’s like standing under a waterfall in your undies, hooting out loud at the cold, after a long hot tramp where you’ve had to be uncomplaining and polite with really boring people. Finally, you meet Frankie!!! I want to push this book forward because I don’t know if I would have discovered it without being asked to edit it by Canterbury University Press – and the way the media works, smaller forms, smaller presses, and quieter voices don’t always get heard with the depth and perception they deserve. 

Auē by Becky Manawatu (Mākaro Press, $35, extract here)

Catherine Woulfe writes: 

Shit I was tired when this book arrived. What I needed to do was sleep when bub slept, but what I did instead was mow through this exhilarating, beautiful, shock of a story. The author dedicates it to her cousin, Glen Bo Duggan, killed by his mother’s partner in 1994. He needed a taniwha to save him, Manawatu writes, “to come and rip through his front door and tear down the walls of the house so everyone could see what was going on behind them”.

We’ve been championing her book, her taniwha, since day one: it is about violence and toxic masculinity and gangs and brutality, but there’s more than one love story in there too, and a couple of ratbag kids you’ll get desperately attached to. The writing is wild, and sure, and wonderful. 

The Gulf Between by Maxine Alterio (Penguin, $38) 

Fiona Kidman writes:

Maxine Alterio’s The Gulf Between is a suspense novel set between New Zealand and Italy. Julia is a young, impulsive New Zealander when she meets and marries Benito Moretti in London. But what dark secrets does his family harbour and what is their connection to an unconscious man in a Queenstown hospital, many years later? The novel takes the reader through the twists and turns of Naples,  relationships with nightmare relatives and secret deals. The colourful landscapes and lovely descriptions of Italian food add enticing layers to the unfolding drama. A blazer of an ending.

When it All Went to Custard by Danielle Hawkins (HarperCollins, $35)

Catherine Woulfe writes

Huge Hawkins fangirl here. I think she’s one of our best writers, as well as happening to sell a hell of a lot of books.

I’ve loved her ever since her first novel, Chocolate Cake for Breakfast, in which a rural vet falls in love with an All Black – if I recall, the meet-cute was him actually falling over her, on the back steps of a backblocks pub. 

I like that she potters about in the garden: her women are forever deadheading irises or mourning a hydrangea. And I like that when those women get hit with dramas she makes them deal with the practicalities – getting kids to bed, closing up the cafe, feeding the dogs – before letting them fall apart. I like that the parents always live just down the road so there’s lots of popping-in for cuppas. I like the blokes – the love interest in this one collects houseplants. I like her voice, most of all: she’s funny and wry and if she ever feels inclined toward a writerly flourish, she prunes it back hard.

Attraction by Ruby Porter (Text Publishing, $37) 

Michalia Arathimos writes: 

Porter sets up this compelling but almost inaccessible inner world for her main character, all the while being seemingly straightforward about things other writers find taboo: sexual encounters, food, painful family histories. Because of the straightforward descriptions of, say, a woman being fingered leaning against a counter top, the characters’ real depths seem more elusive. Attraction is like a series of tricks, with surfaces giving way to further surfaces, and the characters oddly as far away from themselves as we are from them. All the way through we have this exceptional unfolding of the main character grappling with her Pākehā-ness in the face of a violent colonial past, with te reo and Māori place names invoked almost as magic charms. This struggle to come to terms with a personally-felt guilt and placelessness makes this a really important read. 

Sport 47 edited by Tayi Tibble, with Fergus Barrowman, Kirsten McDougall and Ashleigh Young (Victoria University Press, $30, extract here)

Becky Manawatu writes: 

Sport 47 is where it’s at. The kōrero between Patricia Grace and Anahera Gildea is one that as I read it, I wished I’d read long ago, so long ago, but you’re at where you’re at, and where I’m at now is better off for Sport 47. Tēnā koutou! Want more. So much incredible work in there. A standout fave was Nicole Titihuia Hawkins’ poem ‘Type Cast’ – how good could Shorty Street actually be? Talia Marshall (genius), essa may ranapiri (deep), Rebecca Hawke (sold me another little collection in a pub and we got our photo with a sheep).

NB: we made a captain’s call and snuck it into the fiction list because non-fiction was chocka. 

Pūrākau: Māori myths retold by Māori writers edited by Witi Ihimaera and Whiti Hereaka (RHNZ Vintage, $38)

Becky Manawatu writes: 

Pūrākau! Again, like a mean shindig with a bunch of crack up, forever young but wise and older-than-the-stars types! It’s like having all these incredible people together at a nice place (like our mean pad at Waimangaroa – which has a pool table btw). So much goodness between two covers. A pukapuka for the child in you. I got to hear some of the authors speak at the Verb Fest including Apirana Taylor, so now when I read him I can actually hear his beautiful – actually magic – voice. I don’t want to weird anyone out but my hubster said the same thing to me the other day, he was like, “If I want to, I can still actually hear his voice.” But don’t worry, even if you haven’t heard his voice, his contribution to Pūrākau is cool. As is Renée’s! Tina Makereti’s! Keri Hulme’s! Witi Ihimaera! OMG! I have a pool table! We should collect around it some time, please lol? (Not lol – serious af). However, when I need to reflect on something someone has said, I will demand silence. But other than that, it could be cool.

Editor’s note: if we were allowed to pick another, which we’re not, obviously, because we’re at 10, but just if we were, let it be known that it would be The Burning River by Lawrence Patchett (Victoria University Press, $30) which is a textured, rich, thoughtful take on what might be left, later. Our review here

The Spinoff Review of Books is proudly brought to you by Unity Books, recently named 2020 International Book Store of the Year, London Book Fair, and Creative New Zealand. Visit Unity Books Wellington or Unity Books Auckland online stores today. 

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