Reading the longlist

Books editor Rob Kidd spent the past three months reading a combined 3000 pages of those considered the 10 best works of fiction in New Zealand last year. On Tuesday, judges will whittle it down to their top five before the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards ceremony on May 15, when the winner will be announced. Kidd gives his take on the hits and misses.

 The New Animals. Pip Adam. Victoria University Press.

The first two-thirds of Adam's latest offering set the scene for an emotionally intricate and predictably damning insight into the fashion industry.

Three Auckland millennials with their own fashion label call on a supporting cast of hairdressers and stylists to bring their contrived and unrealistic visions to life.

The narrative follows Carla, approaching middle age and fearing she is losing touch, and her delicate friendship with Duey.

It is implied that a lot has happened in the past, life-changing experiences, and readers would be forgiven for thinking the past would gradually be revealed.

Adam appears to delight in pulling the rug from under us.

The New Animals appears to question authenticity - moral, social and environmental - as each character searches for meaning, all while too wrapped up in their own problems to gain the desired clarity.

Then something weird happens.

A fringe character abruptly becomes the sole focus of the story.

She experiences a bizarre metamorphosis, which takes her physically and emotionally away from the preceding plot.

Her experience is at times finely described, without ever fully disclosing what prompted it.

Even while Adam's writing shines in places, it is a challenge to reconcile the disparate parts of her work.

It is an uncomfortable read but then again that is probably precisely what she wanted.


The Beat of the Pendulum. Catherine Chidgey. Victoria University Press. 

If the bravest thing a novelist can do is reveal themselves through their work, Catherine Chidgey is fearless.

The book, subtitled A Found Novel, is like being a fly on the wall of the author's life.

It is difficult to get into.

There is no indication of who is speaking at any time but slowly the "characters" are revealed.

Chidgey's domestic life with her partner Alan and daughter Alice make up large chunks of the text.

Her fertility issues have been documented in the past but through the book, her unusual family situation is laid bare.

At times it is intensely personal.

The awkward conversation between Chidgey and her doctor during a smear test, a particular highlight, depending on your point of view.

Covering the whole of 2016, the sense of time passing is interesting.

Chidgey's mother has been diagnosed with dementia when our eavesdropping begins and as time goes by, as the 500 pages are turned, her mental health deteriorates.

Some of the exchanges between mother and daughter are quite touching, even as her short-term memory declines rapidly.

The book is also peppered with the words Chidgey is bombarded with outside daily chit-chat - television, the internet, the written word.

It simultaneously portrays the disposable nature of language and its potential poignancy.

While it will never be as popular as The Wish Child, which took last year's Ockham Award for fiction, Chidgey certainly cannot be accused of playing it safe.


The Earth Cries Out. Bonnie Etherington. Penguin Random House. 

Bonnie Etherington's debut novel is the pick of the bunch.

Like her main character Ruth, the author was born in Nelson and raised in West Papua at a time of significant political and civil tension.

Ruth's family left New Zealand for the rural highlands of Irian Jaya after the horrific death of her sister.

The unspoken grief and guilt they carry pervades the narrative and seeps into their lives.

Etherington exquisitely crafts the fragile strands holding the characters together while they each try to reconstruct their lives.

Ruth's father throws himself into his mission building a hospital for the local people while her mother forces down her pain by cooking and cleaning as their marriage hangs by a thread.

Our protagonist finds herself among a village of children seemingly so different from her and yet not.

She discovers her best friend Susumina and almost everyone else she encounters has lost someone and she becomes bonded to them through that ever-present cloud of mourning that follows them around.

Ruth is intrigued by the myths and customs of the village and the colour of Papuan culture, in the midst of a crippling drought, flows from the page.

The storyline is plaited with vignettes, superficially based around the flora and fauna of the island.

But they encapsulate much more, informing the reader of the beleaguered nation's history, its people and political plight.

Etherington's imagery and delicate touch make this an instant classic.

I will read this again and again.


Salt Picnic. Patrick Evans. Victoria University Press. 

Set in Ibiza in the 1950s, this is far from your classic Kiwi novel.

Iola, a writer, has travelled there knowing little of the language or the culture.

Later in the novel she is asked why she has come to the island.

" `The human condition,' she tells him when he's come to the end of all this. Again, it just comes out: takes her by surprise as much as it takes him. `I've come here to be - close to humanity'."

Iola believes she is destined to find something on her trip that will inspire her, the pinnacle of her adventure; her muse.

But for most of the story she seems to be treading water, trying to understand what people are saying and thinking.

The disconnect between words and perception, her understanding in a foreign land, is thoroughly examined by Patrick Evans.

And some of his descriptions are genuinely superb.

The author sneaks off on mini-tangents that do not stray far enough from the narrative to be distracting, exploring the protagonist's experience.

However, Iola is a difficult character to embrace.

She falls for a charismatic American early in the book and spends a frustrating amount of time swooning over him.

Of course, there were different expectations of women in the 1950s as opposed to now but Iola is so pathetic.

She constantly finds herself physically doing things while her brain is a passenger. It starts to grate.

The political and historical elements of the setting are intriguing and certainly add depth to the finale but all up, it is a tough read.


Sodden Downstream. Brannavan Gnanalingam. Lawrence & Gibson Publishing.

Anyone who says: "I'd like foreigners if they just made an effort to be a bit more like us", this book is for you.

Sita, a Tamil Sri Lankan refugee, has made a new life for herself in Wellington with her husband Thiru and son Satish.

She is held hostage in a place between her culture, its traditions and history; and her simple desire to provide for her family.

Her work as a cleaner has recently been interrupted, caring for her son who was struck with appendicitis, but her boss Mr Poleman is unsympathetic - and distinctly racist.

He calls her "Paddy" because he had a previous worker called Padmakshi, who presumably had the same skin tone.

Mr Poleman tells Sita if she does not come back to work, she will not have a job.

There is one problem - a "once-in-a-century" storm stands between her and her destination.

Thus begins a journey of epic proportions.

Sita has to get from her home in Naenae to the middle of the city, without public transport, which has all been cancelled.

The people she encounters during her journey are a complete spread of society: judgemental, generous, vindictive and heart-warming.

Just when it appears she is making progress, Sita is knocked back.

It is a celebration of the refugee spirit and a condemnation of anyone who attempts to subjugate it.

Essential reading for modern New Zealand.


Heloise. Mandy Hager. Penguin Random House. 

The transition from writing young adult novels to historical fiction is not a typical one but somehow Mandy Hager has pulled it off.

After being awarded the Katherine Mansfield Fellowship in 2014, she took the opportunity to research the tale of forbidden love in 12th-century France.

The story of Benedictine nun Heloise d'Argentuil and her marriage to theologian and philosopher Peter Abelard has been told before but Hager does it with real aplomb.

Heloise, rescued from poverty by her benevolent uncle, becomes transfixed by the world of literature and learning while being raised in a convent.

Her intelligence, though, leads her into a scandalous relationship with her tutor Abelard, which ultimately drives her away from her uncle and the man she loves.

Hager puts Heloise's feminine sensibilities firmly to the forefront.

In a world run by royals, in league with corrupt figures at the helm of the church, little is expected or wanted of women.

So the protagonist's resistance and chutzpah set her apart.

"What is wrong with these men? So they have no decency at all? How can they kneel and pray when they do so much harm?" Heloise wonders after she and her sisters are turfed out of their home.

And the people affected by this greed? ". . . always the innocent, always the women".

For someone so intelligent, Heloise makes some terrible decisions.

Her life is almost ruined by her romantic notions and love of an egotistical and greedy man.

Hager shows that despite all the religious rhetoric, the world has been the same for many centuries.


Iceland. Dominic Hoey. Steele Roberts Aotearoa. 

From someone who writes poetry and raps under the name "Tourettes", you would be forgiven for expecting little more than a gritty urban tale.

It is gritty and urban but Dominic Hoey produces much more in his debut novel.

It is a study of a doomed relationship and a battle against a similarly doomed existence, set on the streets of Grey Lynn.

When Hamish and Zlata bump into each other their worlds collide.

Zlata is determined to leave her office job and pursue a career in music while reluctant to sell out for commercial success.

Hamish is a talented artist and part-time drug dealer.

From the start it is easy to see there will be problems and the couple's differences rear their heads early and often.

But we have all been there; the pair fall in love, their lives are slowly becoming entwined and they are suddenly heavily invested.

Hoey encapsulates that intoxication of a passionate, symbiotic relationship.

Both characters - but particularly Hamish - have a penchant for self-destruction, which is evident when he gets his break with a major exhibition, media interest in his work and an overseas trip.

But nothing can be perfect for long.

The plot device which eventually ties the characters together and forms the pivotal moment is a little obvious but the author steers well away from the temptation of a convenient conclusion.

Love stories do not always have a happy ending.


Baby. Annaleese Jochems. Victoria University Press. 

Everything about this book is disquieting, from the pink cover bearing a jam sandwich (minus one bite) to the exaggeratedly understated narrative.

With nothing to go on but a plot summary, Annaleese Jochems' debut novel would appear on the surface to be an intense psychological thriller.

But she intentionally goes against the grain, using the voice of vacuous 21-year-old Auckland daddy's girl Cynthia.

She is so self-absorbed everything else is secondary.

Cynthia is the ultimately unreliable narrator because she can barely see past the end of her cellphone.

She runs away to the Bay of Islands with her fitness instructor Anahera on a whim, when the woman's marriage falls apart.

After swiping a chunk of her dad's cash, Cynthia buys them a boat.

And they drift.

Cynthia believes she is in love with the older woman and her blind focus on that becomes increasingly uncomfortable.

As other characters join the fray and Cynthia's pretty, pink, perfect existence, which she is convinced she is living, starts to rot, things get interesting.

But because of the narrator's warped point of view, the reader never knows when the flashpoint is coming.

Sometimes when it happens, the passage has to be reread to fully understand what has occurred.

It is an unsettling read and the weird emptiness of Cynthia's soul is something that sticks with you well after completion.

Jochems has been hailed as the next big thing in Kiwi literature. There will be a keen interest in what she does next.


The frustrating thing with a lot of New Zealand books is that they are so unmistakably Kiwi.

Authors sometimes revel so much in that kiwiana that they become kitsch, and the portrayal of the country is completely distorted.

Kirsten McDougall expertly avoids this and creates an exquisite snapshot of broken people trying to heal.

Though set in Masterton, it could really be anywhere.

The bedraggled Tess is hitch-hiking when she is picked up by Lewis.

The awkwardness between the young woman, voluntarily alone, and the man whose family have deserted him is palpable.

But slowly their bond strengthens.

McDougall has a golden touch when it comes to dialogue and description.

Tess has her secrets and she is intrigued by the tragedies that have struck her host.

Just as she and Lewis appear to be settling into some sort of co-dependent rhythm, his daughter Jean shows up.

Her zeal and honesty ignites the story and drives it to its inevitable conclusion.

While some of the twists are not wholly unpredictable, the author entrances the reader and puts them in the house when the tense climax unfolds.

It suggests you cannot run from your past. The truth will out.

And almost as soon as it has begun, it ends.

At a little over 150 pages, it provides a fleeting insight into lives under reconstruction and leaves the reader craving so much more.


Five Strings. Apirana Taylor. Anahera Press. 

Though Five Strings is set in a fictional city, sadly, it could be anywhere in New Zealand.

Mack and Puti, a semi-transient pair of alcoholics live to a strict routine of booze and dope based on the frequency of their dole payments.

While they reside together in a grimy bedsit, they are hardly a couple and the disconnect between them is ever present.

It seems when Mack is happy and calls Puti his "Peaches Babydoll", a dark cloud hangs over her; and vice versa.

The root of their sadness is gradually uncovered by Apirana Taylor, exposing how they have come to be in such a hopeless situation.

He also connects it to the absence of Maoritanga in their lives without it being too preachy.

For Puti, who was essentially raised in a gang pad, the severed connection to her culture is understandable but Mack had opportunities for a better life and rejected them.

The monotonous rhythm of life plays out over the weeks we follow the couple: drunk - hungover - craving intoxication.

Mack considers himself something of a street poet and frequently mocks Puti for her perceived stupidity.

But it is she who eventually sees their existence for what it is.

Mack refuses to face reality and when forced to confront it, he only drinks more.

Taylor frequently inserts black humour to offset the bleakness of the subject matter, most brilliantly when Puti nicknames Mack "Cord on Blue" after she misunderstands his culinary claims.

Five Strings is a heartbreaking novel featuring a colourful cast who are easy to love and loathe simultaneously.

And the winner is . . . 

  • My Shortlist - Five Strings. Heloise. Sodden Downstream. Tess. The Earth Cries Out. 
  • My Winner - The Earth Cries Out. 


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