The embargo’s toast so here, finally, are the finalists of the 2022 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.
Below we’ve listed the 10 books contending each of the four major categories, followed by analysis from books editor Catherine Woulfe and poetry editor Chris Tse. We’ve popped an asterisk beside the books that are debuts, and therefore up for a best first book prize.
Shortlists will be announced on 2 March, with winners revealed at a ceremony in May.
The Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction ($60,000 prize)
A Good Winter by Gigi Fenster (Text Publishing)
Aljce in Therapy Land by Alice Tawhai (Lawrence & Gibson)
Entanglement by Bryan Walpert (Mākaro Press)
Everything Changes by Stephanie Johnson (Vintage, Penguin Random House)
Greta & Valdin by Rebecca K Reilly (Te Herenga Waka University Press)*
Kurangaituku by Whiti Hereaka (Huia Publishers)
Loop Tracks by Sue Orr (Te Herenga Waka University Press)
She’s a Killer by Kirsten McDougall (Te Herenga Waka University Press)
The Pink Jumpsuit: Short fictions, tall truths by Emma Neale (Quentin Wilson Publishing)
Unsheltered by Clare Moleta (Scribner Australia, Simon & Schuster)*
Catherine Woulfe writes:
There are some great books on this list, flashes of brilliance that lit up a shit year. And only one dude! Huh.
My top four, in ascending order of awesomeness: Aljce in Therapy Land, She’s A Killer, Greta and Valdin, Unsheltered. Of course, awesomeness is no guarantee of a win. (See: The Absolute Book, which dipped out on a shortlist spot in 2020; Sorrow and Bliss, which did likewise last year.)
But let’s linger on Unsheltered for a moment. My favourite. It has a compulsive plot, a racing heart; it’s one of those novels you carry with you. A mother is desperately searching for her eight-year-old daughter across a desiccated, disintegrating country. The climate’s going exponentially to hell and so is society. The country feels like Australia, although Clare Moleta’s been coy on that. (Maybe so that she doesn’t do herself out of New Zealand’s biggest fiction prize, which seems to prefer fiction set close to home?)
There’s so much thirst and heat and dust and walking, walking, walking – but then there are scenes that sing with life, scream with it, like those David Attenborough documentaries where you watch green rip through the desert. Elizabeth Knox reviewed Unsheltered for us – “in awe at what Clare has achieved”, she wrote – and we published an essay by Moleta. “There’s really nothing in the book that isn’t happening now,” she wrote. “It’s just not happening to me yet.”
That said, I suspect the Acorn and the sweet sweet $60k will go to Sue Orr for her novel about abortion / adoption / autism Loop Tracks, with Rebecca K Reilly handed the consolation prize of best first book for the knowing, lol-filled Greta and Valdin, about siblings muddling through in Auckland.
This longlist also features a couple of books I couldn’t finish or wished I hadn’t. This hasn’t happened for a couple of years; maybe it’s just where my head’s at, but I looked at this list and was overwhelmed with exhaustion. So I want to stop for a sec and recognise the thrillers (not just the literary thrillers), the “commercial fiction”, the stuff that’s easy and fun to read – the stuff that’s not on this list. There’s just as much craft in those books, just as much texture. Looking at you, J.P. Pomare, and you Ben Sanders and Catherine Robertson and Nicky Pellegrino and Eileen Merriman. (The latter did get a moment in the sun for 2019’s Moonlight Sonata, but her most recent novel Double Helix, and 2020’s The Silence of Snow, were stronger.) While we’re here: Hat-tip to Allen & Unwin, which has just rolled out a prize for commercial fiction writers, paying a $10,000 advance against royalties.
The Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry ($10,000 prize)
Bird Collector by Alison Glenny (Compound Press)
Ghosts by Siobhan Harvey (Otago University Press)
Party Legend by Sam Duckor-Jones (Te Herenga Waka University Press)
Rangikura by Tayi Tibble (Te Herenga Waka University Press)
Sea-light by Dinah Hawken (Te Herenga Waka University Press)
Sleeping with Stones by Serie Barford (Anahera Press)
The Sea Walks into a Wall by Anne Kennedy (Auckland University Press)
Tōku Pāpā by Ruby Solly (Te Herenga Waka University Press)*
Tumble by Joanna Preston (Otago University Press)
Whai by Nicole Titihuia Hawkins (We Are Babies Press)*
Chris Tse writes:
Many of these collections explore the impact of the past on the present, and the impermanence of modern life.
There’s no such thing as a lock when it comes to book awards, but if there were to be one for the poetry longlist, it’s Tayi Tibble’s Rangikura. Tibble’s second collection is outrageous and brazen in its weaving of the past with the present. “My ancestors ride wit me,” she proclaims. “Don’t tell them what they would do./I know them better than you.”
In Ghosts, Siobhan Harvey channels the spirits and apparitions that lurk in our memories and the past with tales of migration, dislocation and fractured relationships. Serie Barford’s collection is an elegiac portrait of the poet moving through the seasons of grief, from the immediate response to the passing of a loved one to slowly accepting that “the living sing/so do the dead”.
The ever-dependable Dinah Hawken’s Sea-light draws from familiar themes of nature and global connections. There’s a growing unease lurking between its lines: “welcome to a world within a world/where one side of a wound tends to seek the other.” Throughout the book, the sea breaks and reconvenes, holding on to hope in spite of the direction the world is moving in.
There are some uncanny parallels between Sea-light and Anne Kennedy’s The Sea Walks into a Wall, from the recurring water imagery to the appearance of silence in both books’ final lines. Kennedy’s sprawling, image-laden poems are filled with the emotional and intellectual heft we’ve come to expect from her. In a world of uncertainty, Kennedy’s voice is a comforting balm.
Tumble is Joanna Preston’s second collection. Her assured and inventive poems are imbued with the dappled light of nostalgia and propelled by the rise and fall of life’s small and big moments, and the absences that follow us like shadows. This is a collection that feels both lived-in and open to the possibilities of what’s to come.
Although all of these books exhibit innovative or experimental tendencies, two in particular bend language and poetic forms into new and unexpected shapes. Sam Duckor-Jones’ enigmatic Party Legend mixes long, challenging pieces with heartfelt meditations on his queer and Jewish identities. Meanwhile, Alison Glenny’s genre-defying Bird Collector employs prose poems, erasure, footnotes and fragmented text to create a fever dream of mystery and discovery.
There are only two debut collections on this year’s longlist: Tōku Pāpā by Ruby Solly, and Whai by Nicole Titihuia Hawkins. Both of these first-time authors have crafted bold, openhearted collections that share their experiences of being, and surviving as, young Māori women in the 21st century.
And then of course there are the notable omissions, of which there are many. Where’s Emma Barnes? Kirsten Le Harviel? Or Liz Breslin? And what about Ash Davida Jane, whose How to Live with Mammals was runner-up for the UK’s 2021 Laurel Prize, or Tim Gregc’s historical epic All Tito’s Children? That these ambitious and acclaimed works didn’t make the longlist is a sign that Aotearoa poetry is in rude health. Poetry readers and lovers are truly spoilt for choice.
General Non-Fiction Award ($10,000 prize)
After Dark: Walking into the Nights of Aotearoa by Annette Lees (Potton & Burton)
Bloody Woman by Lana Lopesi (Bridget Williams Books)
Come Back to Mona Vale: Life and Death in a Christchurch Mansion by Alexander McKinnon (Otago University Press)*
Enough Horizon: The Life and Work of Blanche Baughan by Carol Markwell (The Cuba Press)
From the Centre: A Writer’s Life by Patricia Grace (Penguin Random House)
Helen Kelly: Her Life by Rebecca Macfie (Awa Press)
He Kupu Taurangi: Treaty Settlements and the Future of Aotearoa New Zealand by Christopher Finlayson and James Christmas (Huia Publishers)*
The Alarmist: Fifty Years Measuring Climate Change by Dave Lowe (Te Herenga Waka University Press)*
The Mirror Book by Charlotte Grimshaw (Vintage, Penguin Random House)
Voices from the New Zealand Wars | He Reo nō ngā Pakanga o Aotearoa by Vincent O’Malley (Bridget Williams Books)
Catherine Woulfe writes:
A whole phalanx of essay writers is entirely missing in action. Where are Nina Mingya Powles, Michelle Langstone, Danyl Mclauchlan, John Summers, Megan Dunn, Ingrid Horrocks? Any of them could sit comfortably on a shortlist; it’s bizarre, incredible, that they didn’t even make the longlist. That none of them did. I’m particularly gutted for Powles. Her memoir-ish collection Small Bodies of Water glows with colour and expertise and poetry; I wrote about it, ecstatically, here. I thought Powles might even beat Charlotte Grimshaw, if the judges were of the “how dare that Stead girl air the family’s dirty laundry” variety.
At awards time any category that has the word “general” in it is a suckful category to be stuck in. At the Ockhams, “general” equals sprawling, disparate, apples and oranges – good luck in there. But it’s also usually a colourful category, a vibrant one. This year, in ditching those six essay collections, the judges have managed to zap the joy from it almost entirely. They’ve honed in on anything the slightest bit bright and breezy – even if it’s very brainy, too – and blown it out of the water. Fun? Zap. Nostalgic? Zap. Accessible? Ye gods, get it gone, zap. What’s left behind is concentrated and meaty, loooong, a serious undertaking.
Exceptions: Charlotte Grimshaw and Patricia Grace, where the writing is so good you hardly notice you’re covering heavy country.
From the Centre is short, small, heavy with story and mana. It arrived in my letterbox on the same day as the third volume of C.K. Stead’s memoir. That book alone – one-third of Stead’s life in letters – was twice the size of Grace’s memoir in its entirety. Stead did not make the cut.
Anyway, shortlist picks: Grace, Rebecca Macfie for her deeply reported Helen Kelly bio, Vincent O’Malley for his fascinating new way in to Ngā Pakanga o Aotearoa. With the win, of course, to Grimshaw. Categories be damned (especially this one, and especially this year) – The Mirror Book is indisputably the book of 2021. But now I have a niggle of worry that she’s about to be zapped to bits, too, due to brazenly writing too well.
The Booksellers Aotearoa New Zealand Award for Illustrated Non-Fiction ($10,000 prize)
Bill Hammond: Across the Evening Sky by Peter Vangioni with Tony de Lautour, Rachael King, Nic Low, Paul Scofield and Ariana Tikao (Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū)
Conversātiō: In the Company of Bees by Anne Noble with Zara Stanhope and Anna Brown (Massey University Press)
Dressed: Fashionable Dress in Aotearoa New Zealand 1840 to 1910 by Claire Regnault (Te Papa Press)
He Ringatoi o ngā Tūpuna: Isaac Coates and his Māori portraits by Hilary and John Mitchell (Potton & Burton)
Hei Taonga mā ngā Uri Whakatipu | Treasures for the Rising Generation: The Dominion Museum Ethnological Expeditions 1919–1923 edited by Wayne Ngata, Anne Salmond, Natalie Robertson, Amiria Salmond, Monty Soutar, Billie Lythberg, James Schuster and Conal McCarthy et al (Te Papa Press)
Joanna Margaret Paul: Imagined in the Context of a Room by Lucy Hammonds, Lauren Gutsell and Greg Donson (Dunedin Public Art Gallery)
Nuku: Stories of 100 Indigenous Women by Qiane Matata-Sipu (QIANE+co)*
Shifting Grounds: Deep Histories of Tāmaki Makaurau by Lucy Mackintosh (Bridget Williams Books)*
Te Puna Waiora: The Distinguished Weavers of Te Kāhui Whiritoi by Ngāhuia Te Awekōtuku, Donna Campbell, Awhina Tamarapa and Nathan Pōhio (Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū)
The Architect and the Artists: Hackshaw, McCahon, Dibble by Bridget Hackshaw (Massey University Press)*
Catherine Woulfe writes:
Last year this category was a lineup of simple, stupefying beauty. This time it’s much more complex. These are not books to be gaped at nor absently flicked through.
I fancy the chances of Bridget Hackshaw, and of Lucy Mackintosh for her book of Tāmaki Makaurau history, Shifting Grounds. A gentle confrontation of ignorance, says Anna Rawhiti-Connell in a stunning review that we’ll publish on Auckland Anniversary Day.
Words often suffer in pursuit of aesthetics but the writing in Across the Evening Sky is exceptional. We published one of the essays, the stand-out, by Nic Low. There’s also a piece of short fiction by Rachael King. You don’t have to be into Bill Hammond’s art to appreciate this book.
But I’d love to see this year’s prize go to Nuku. It’s delightfully lowbrow – a spinoff of a blog, good heavens – and it’s bursting with radiant photos of wāhine. On the land, in their libraries, at marae, at the golf course.
Many of the photos are showstoppers. More importantly, there’s a palpable sense of trust, of straight-on-ness, that’s startling because you don’t see it too often. These wāhine stare directly at the camera. They feel safe enough to shut their eyes, or smile full tilt, or both at the same time. They tell their stories in first person – I, I, I. This is hard to get right as an editor, it’s so easy to let people waffle or to squash their voice entirely. Matata-Sipu has it down.
Notably, Nuku is not a hardback, nor does it have any of the production elements (like the cormorant-black edging of Hei Taonga mā ngā Uri Whakatipu, Conversātiō’s strokable fuzzy navy cover, or Dressed’s lovely quilted one) that can make a book seem important. That will count against it – but the flipside, of course, is accessibility. And surely there’s points in that.
Good luck, all, and see you back here in March for the shortlists.