ReadingRoom literary editor Steve Braunias selects the year’s 10 best works of fiction
True, I’ve included four novels outside of literary fiction (a crime novel, a historical novel, two of commercial fiction), but really my selection of the top 10 works of fiction for 2021 stays close to the idea that the best fiction is literary fiction, and how true can that claim be in this day and age? I should have been more adventurous. I should have found room for Whiti Hereaka’s Kurangaituku, and Gigi Fenster’s A Good Winter, and Aljce in Therapy Land by Alice Tawhai, and To Italy, With Love by Nicky Pellegrino, and Emma Neale’s short story collection The Pink Jumpsuit, and Polaroid Nights by Lizzie Harwood, and Isobar Precinct by Angelique Kasmara, and the collection of erotic short stories Please, Call Me Jesus by Sam Te Kani, and….And the point is that some of the most exciting or just downright entertaining fiction being published in New Zealand is by writers operating outside of the industrial military literary fiction genre complex of the IIML. I hope that the judges of the Ockham New Zealand national book awards are more open and more adventurous when they draw up their longlist for the 2022 awards.
But anyway so the fact is that I think the year’s three most obviously outstanding novels were all literary fiction and all came out of Victoria University Press. Greta and Valdin, She’s a Killer and Loop Tracks were respectively funny, exciting, and profound; I recommend each of them as Xmas gifts or summer reading. Same goes for the other books in the top 10 (actually 11).
Greta & Valdin by Rebecca K Reilly (Victoria University Press, $35)
The very best novel of 2021. It’s a sprawling comedy set mainly in downtown Auckland with occasional visits to faraway places such as Penrose, following the adventures (maybe too strong a word: nothing much happens) of Greta Vladisavljevic and her brother, Valdin. “Tāmaki Makaurau has possibly never been so authentically celebrated with wry, humorous observations,” Hannah Tunnicliffe wrote in her review for Kete. It’s an Auckland barely seen in New Zealand fiction – young, diverse, told from the inside. From Tunnicliffe’s excellent review: “The Vladisavljevic family can never remember ‘white people names,’ Greta observing, ‘I know I can remember Sina, Min, Ashford and J-soek, but there’s no way I’m going to remember Kieran,’ while her friend Elliot gets called ‘Greg’ for a whole day. Racism, sexism and homophobia are all examined here in ways that make you think, sometimes cringe but mostly laugh, due to Reilly’s dry, acerbic tone which manages to also be warm and generous.” New Zealand’s best literary critic, Charlotte Grimshaw, will assess Greta and Valdin in ReadingRoom next week. For now: go out and get the funniest and also the most original, enjoyable and best novel published in New Zealand in 2021.
She’s A Killer by Kirsten McDougall (Victoria University Press, $35)
Very nearly the best novel of the year. There was a topicality to the Wellington writer’s fast-paced ecothriller – it’s set in a near future, where climate change has seen the world begin to slide into hell in a hat, and created a wave of “wealthugees”, rich people from overseas who buy their way into New Zealand – as well as a sharp humour and a genuinely electrifying passage where two characters travel at night with the intent of planting a bomb. Like Loop Tracks (below), I felt I had to wade through too many other elements, including a lot of internal dialogue. But it succeeds as a believable and funny piece of dystopia and I won’t be surprised if it wins the Ockham prize for best novel in 2022. From a ReadingRoom review by Kiran Dass: (who liked the whole of it): “She’s a Killer is such an engrossing page-turner that 200-odd pages passed me by in a flurry before I even realised. And the action hadn’t even started yet. It’s no mean feat to sustain a reader’s attention over 399 pages but McDougall does just that by smartly eking out tension and deftly unfolding the narrative at a sly pace, all the while keeping us on our toes. I never quite knew where she was about to take us and it’s a heart-pumping thrill of a ride from start to finish.”
Loop Tracks by Sue Orr (Victoria University Press, $30)
This could easily have been the best novel of the year if it had maintained the power and velocity of the first 50-60 pages. There was no question that the opening section of Orr’s novel was the best opening section of any book published in New Zealand in 2021. It was magnificent, a tour de force, as Orr introduced a pregnant 16-year-old in 1978, forced to fly to Sydney to have an abortion; she stays at an airport motel with her mum, and is then dropped off at the airport to fend for herself. It’s all so brilliantly imagined. It’s vivid, detailed, you can’t put it down. I wasn’t as involved with the rest of the book, set before and during last year’s lockdown. There’s an extremely unlikely love affair with a neighbour, a section about a university student who goes down the rabbit hole of Covid conspiracy thinking, and a sub-section sort of thing about a guy who may or may not be taking advantage of young women – there’s a lot of other things going on too, and I missed the single devotion to the story that opens the book. But the sheer brilliance of that opening elevates this book into one of the year’s three best novels. From a ReadingRoom review by Paddy Richardson (who liked the whole of it): “Loop Tracks is a novel rich in reflection and debate over issues such as addiction, ageing, autism, abortion and euthanasia; should men have a say over abortion; should the government control how we should end our lives? Should we trust logic or emotions? Orr examines how, in our differences and complexities we respond to our world….A remarkable novel, beautifully and sensitively written, which demonstrates how the secrecy of the past may so unfairly encroach on the present.”
Unsheltered by Clare Moleta (Scribner / Simon & Schuster, $35)
Three superb New Zealand novels have been set in the near-future in the past two years (and Eleanor Catton’s long-awaited novel on that theme may be published next year): The Animals in That Country by Laura Jean McKay, She’s a Killer by Kirsten McDougall (above), and Unsheltered. A woman searches for her daughter against a background of social breakdown and destructive weather. From a review by Elizabeth Heritage at ReadingRoom: “The first time I left the room to get away from IIML grad Clare Moleta’s debut novel was on page three, when a child dies. The second time was on page 11 when Li, the protagonist, recovers consciousness in a strange place, covered in injuries, to find that she has lost her eight-year-old daughter Matti. But once I got up the courage to come back I devoured Unsheltered in two bites, interrupted only by the sun setting. It was way too scary to read after dark….You could call it a thriller, or climate fiction, or a classic chase story (although in this case it is a mother searching for her child). It’s set in a country that is “Australian but not Australia”, according to the author’s note. Climate change has wrought havoc and large swathes of the land are now uninhabitable. Massive, fatal storms drive people from their towns into refugee camps. Selected people live in ‘safe’ zones behind heavily guarded walls; the remaining unfortunates – including Li and Matti – are unsheltered. Moleta doesn’t waste time explaining how this has happened or the details of the geopolitical situation. It’s enough to know that danger threatens from every turn and no institutions in power can be trusted.”
The Piano Girls by Elizabeth Smither (Quentin Wilson Publishing, $35)
The year’s best collection of short stories. No one crafts a story with the same deftness of touch as the New Plymouth author; in fact they are a masterclass in craft, as she tells stories of the middle-class, middle-aged or older, going about their domestic lives in hope and confusion. One of the stories appeared in ReadingRoom earlier this year: “Baking Night”, in which a woman tries to stave off the advances of a would-be Romeo by baking when he visits her one evening. It’s so deliciously told, and a good indication of the skill that’s evident throughout The Piano Girls. From a review by Kiran Dass at ReadingRoom: “Elizabeth Smither’s stories have a balletic elegance and a playfulness. The author looks beyond the good manners and honest intentions of her characters and considers them with kindness and curiosity. She’s a shrewd storyteller, and her care and craft makes The Piano Girls a pleasure to read.”
The Double Helix by Eileen Merriman (Penguin, $36) / Before You Knew my Name by Jacqueline Bubitz (Allen & Unwin, $33)
Yes, yes, shocking and Not Right to lump in two novels together just because they’re both within that loose genre of commercial fiction but I didn’t have the heart to leave one or the other out. The latest novel by Auckland writer (and doctor) Eileen Merriman is a love story and a tearjerker and a blazingly topical examination into assisted dying. The plot: a guy who may inherit a fatal illness falls in love. From a review by Tiffany Matsis at ReadingRoom: “It’s an emotional rollercoaster, with Jodi Picoult-esque twists and turns in the plot that I didn’t see coming – and some I did but was still winded by. Have a box of tissues on hand.” Death is also at hand in Before You Knew my Name by New Plymouth author Jacqueline Bubitz. It’s narrated by Alice. Alice is dead… Lucy Clark, in the Guardian: “Fundamental to the book is a hope that there exists some sort of consciousness after death – or at least a suspension of disbelief, as Alice hovers over the story until the final pages.”
Crazy Love by Rosetta Allan (Penguin Random House, $30)
The central problem of Allan’s love story was whether it was fiction or straight memoir. A glib answer is that it was both, but the very fact of the question sometimes distracted from a powerful and compelling read. Crazy Love opens with Billy contemplating suicide by jumping off the Auckland Harbour Bridge. He’s seeking the courage to let go. His wife, narrator Vicki Miller, imagines it is the thought of her that stops him. From there, the story switches back and forth in time – the early 1980s, when Vicki and Billy meet while living in a dilapidated boarding house in Napier; in 2012, when Billy suffers from mental health problems; and to post-2020 Covid lockdown. From a review by Sue Orr at ReadingRoom: “This is deeply disturbing yet utterly compelling storytelling – an unflinching account of severe mental illness and associated domestic torment. It is also – always – a record of Vicki’s unconditional love for Billy. No matter what Billy has thrown at Vicki by way of past abuse – and may well continue to pummel her with in the future – she will not turn her back on him…A powerfully affecting, searingly honest, heartbreaking and hopeful novel.”
Everything Changes by Stephanie Johnson (Vintage, Penguin Random House, $30)
“Cashed-up Aucklanders losing it in the sticks”, was the headline I wrote for Paddy Richardson’s review of the latest novel by distinguished Auckland writer Stephanie Johnson (when the blazes are the selection committee of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award going to do the right thing, and give her the fiction prize?) and like all of my headlines it only had a passing resemblance to the actual story. Everything Changes was a lot more sophisticated than that. Johnson always has an eye for topicality – she operates as a satirist to some degree – and she had a jolly good time zeroing in on the contemporary phenomenon of Aucklanders selling their homes for great prices and moving to the regions. Her family are the Seabrooks, who buy “a crumbling sprawl of motel units on a hillside in Northland”. From Richardson’s review at ReadingRoom: “I loved the book. It’s beautifully written with evocative descriptions of the landscape which holds them in all the chaos. It is funny and clever and sad. The pace takes you up and spins you along, while, at the same time you are caught up in the cataclysmic lives of those of us living in the 21st Century.”
The Nine Lives of Kitty K. by Margaret Mills (Mary Egan, $34.99)
There is a huge and enthusiastic market for historical novels set in New Zealand, or at least a certain kind of historical novel – white settlers, 19th century, preferably no Māori, preferably in the South Island. The Nine Lives of Kitty K. hit all the targets and was one of the year’s best-selling novels; remarkably, it was the debut novel of an author aged 91. Mills based her story on Kitty Kirk, who spent most of her life around Lake Wakatipu. She was born in 1855. Her mother came out from Ireland. Kitty died in 1930, slandered by some as a “drunken harlot”. Mills fashions a wonderfully entertaining story set during the Otago goldrush and writes skilful, well-researched evocations, including a drowning on Lake Wakatipu: “At Glenorchy the fun went on. Lake Wakatipu had now blown up very rough and one of the spectators thought he heard someone shouting or crying, but he dismissed the thought because the bagpipes were very loud and competing with the screaming seagulls. Those who wondered why the Kinloch people hadn’t come thought that since the rivers were too high to cross and the lake was so choppy they had decided against it. Their parents, who weren’t expecting them home, were also unconcerned. It was only when the steamer arrived on the following afternoon that the horrible truth was realised. A search was organised and some days later the boat was found washed up on Pigeon Island. Later again, Katie’s pride, her new black shiny hat, was found on the beach at Twenty-Five Mile Creek. The bodies were never found. Lake Wakatipu seldom gives up its victims.”
The Last Guests by JP Pomare (Hachette, $35)
The best crime and thriller writer in New Zealand by a long stretch has gone unrecognised by the Ngaio Marsh crime writing awards on account of the fact those awards are sick in the head, completely ludicrous, dumb. Well, maybe Pomare will have better luck at the 2022 Ockham New Zealand book awards with his latest book; it’d be awesome to see a crime novel bust into the literary fiction party, and The Last Guests would deserve a place on the shortlist. It’s so well-told, a wonderful demonstration of poise and suspense. From a review by Craig Ranapia at ReadingRoom: “Cain and Lina Phillips narrate most of the novel. He’s an ex-SAS soldier whose failed business isn’t helping a rocky return to civilian life that includes increasingly pointed questions about his role in civilian deaths in Afghanistan. She’s a paramedic whose own career is about to blow up after a call goes tragically bad. Both have secrets that come to light when they’re not as good at scrubbing their internet histories as they think. .. The Last Guests is the first novel I’ve read in years I wish was longer.”