ReadingRoom returns to action in 2022 as literary editor Steve Braunias previews the year in New Zealand writing
A new Eleanor Catton, maybe; a new Becky Manawatu, maybe; a new Lloyd Jones, definitely. Excitement levels in New Zealand literature in 2022 will go through the roof if either our two biggest stars in fiction – Catton, with her long-awaited novel Birnam Wood, and Manawatu, with Auē II – are published this year. Nothing is scheduled as yet but I gather they’re both possible in a well-you-never-know fashion. In any case, there are a range of other exciting books due in 2022, including a memoir by Noelle McCarthy, an illustrated book of the landmark exhibition of Māori art Toi Tu Toi Ora, a “lucid, genre-bending, cinematic work of autobiographical fiction” by Coco Solid, and the first novel in four years by that magnificent story teller Lloyd Jones.
Meanwhile, next week sees the announcement of the best books of 2021: that is, the longlist of the Ockham New Zealand national book awards is published on January 27. Contenders include She’s a Killer by Kirsten McDougall and Loop Tracks by Sue Orr for best novel, Rangikura by Tayi Tibble for best collection of poetry, and the landmark Shifting Grounds: Deep histories of Tamaki Makaurau Auckland by Lucy Mackintosh for best illustrated non-fiction. But the Ockham is so last year. It’s 2022. Let’s see the best of what the year will bring.
IN WHICH LLOYD JONES CONCEIVES A FISH
Jones is the big drawcard of the year. This guy is major, among the top rank of New Zealand novelists, shortlisted for the Booker; his previous novel The Cage was a profound and disturbing allegory of captivity, brutality, and, chiefly, indifference, the way we see something awful happening to someone else and then not so much have somewhere to get to and sail calmly on but stick around for a while until we get used to it. Advance notice of his new novel The Fish is that its central event is the birth of a peculiar baby in a shabby caravan at a beach campground: “Then she lifts the Fish up from the bassinet and holds him out to me. ‘Go on, take him.’ And to the Fish she says, ‘This is your uncle.’ I manage to clap my hands either side of the fish bundle. But I feel like I am holding an expensive glass. Once you’re told not to drop it, all you can think of is the glass shattering across the floor.”
Interestingly, a similar fantastical idea was also dreamed up last year in the short story “Levitating Baby” by Grace Tong, published in Newsroom. In that instance, the peculiar baby could levitate: “It’s been a while since I held a baby. He strains against my arms, leaning towards the couch, so I let him go, and he wriggles off my knee onto the couch beside me. I think he’s just going to crawl along the couch, but he rolls over onto his bottom and then begins to rise like a helium balloon.”
A fish baby, a floating baby – that’s going to be as far as the similarity goes. Jones is an intensely thoughtful and steadfastly original writer. He talks about his work with more intellectual gravity than any other New Zealand writer I know. Penguin describe The Fish as “a tender story of family bonds, both strained and strengthened by tragedy”. Everything he writes is an event; the publication date is March 1.
More fantasticality features in another keenly anticipated novel due in 2022: The Axe Man’s Carnival by Catherine Chidgey is narrated by a fucking magpie. It’s set on a Central Otago sheep farm and features an unhappily married couple. (“Tom and Elizabeth took the farm”, as Denis Glover writes in the opening line of his famous poem “The Magpies”). One day the wife rescues a magpie chick and sets about raising it against her husband’s wishes. The magpie begins to mimic human speech and becomes an internet sensation causing more conflict. In an interview with the Otago Daily Times, Chidgey said, “The bird is suddenly bringing in lots of money which could save their farm but the husband can’t stand the thing and thinks magpies are pests that should be shot.”
Other novels published this year include Wintertime by Laurence Fearnley (the story of a man returning to the small South Island town he grew up in and having to face the past, and current family relationships), Slow Down, You’re Here by Brannavan Gnanalingam, billed as a romantic comedy! (Kavita is stuck in a dead-end marriage, and is juggling parenting two small kids while also being the family’s main breadwinner; when an old flame offers a week away in Waiheke, she decides to accept), Down from Upland by Murdoch Stephens, a near-futuristic satire about hideous millennials raising a teenager (characters include an earnest policy team from the Ministry of Health, and the New Zealand Police Force’s carbon neutral schemers), and How to Loiter in a Turf War, described as “genre-bending autobiographical fiction”, about three young friends navigating life in Auckland, by writer/multimedia artist/musician Coco Solid.
THE PRIME OF MS NOELLE McCARTHY
The memoir of the year looks set to be Grand by broadcaster Noelle McCarthy. I read it in proof form over summer and was variously dazzled, entertained, deeply moved and constantly involved: it’s such a readable book, the prose is exact and sometimes beautiful, and the life it reveals is of a woman pretty much doomed to follow in her Mammy’s footsteps and become a full-on, foaming, raving alcoholic. There’s a scene in the book where she remembers coming home after another night drinking too much to call out, inbetween vomiting, “I’m so bored.” The way she describes that moment – and even the sheer fact she remembers it – is typical of Grand. Few who go to hell and back are able to return with a clear version of events. But McCarthy has a rare skill. She also has a lot of heart. The fulcrum of the book is her Mammy. The book functions as a self-portrait but it’s also a portrait of her Mum, battling the bottle in Cork, Ireland, told with love and anguish.
But actually another memoir is due this year, which also promises to be a literary event – Tutū: A memoir of being hōhā, by Talia Marshall, as in the Talia Marshall, a writer nonpareil.
Two outstanding collections are due: How to be a Bad Muslim by Mohamed Hassan and So Far For Now by Fiona Kidman, who writes about becoming a grandmother and a widow, writers’ festivals, and Pike River. The essay as a form has become my least favourite kind of literature – well, not quite least; flash fiction and slam poetry are the absolute pits – but I will read anything either Mohamed or Fiona writes.
The biography of the year looks set to be Comrade: Bill Andersen – A Communist, Working-Class Life by Cybèle Locke. Andersen was a significant figure in New Zealand’s trade union movement; Locke’s biography explores what it meant to be a working-class, communist trade unionist in New Zealand. On the other side of the coin, Otago University Press publish The Rise of the Radical Right: Histories of Intolerance in Aotearoa New Zealand edited by Matthew Cunningham, Marinus La Rooij and Paul Spoonley.
Nick Bollinger’s Jumping Sundays: The rise and fall of the counterculture in New Zealand is going to be very, very good. Frances Cook always offers sound financial advice in the Herald; her book Your Money, Your Future is set to sell like hot cakes. Futilitarianism is a critique of neoliberalism from Neil Valleley, and Comparonomics: Why life is better than you think and how to make it even better by Grant Ryan sounds like one of those useful self-help books that combines quasi-science with ra-ra pep talking – the blurb blathers, “With the help of a new tool, Comparonomics delves into the factors that make us feel bad and reaches some surprising conclusions. Not only are we much better than we – or the economists – think we are, but the things we aim for like economic growth, improved social mobility, and equality don’t impact most of the feel-bad factors. In other words, we’re feeling worse than we ought to, and we’re doing too many of the wrong things to feel better.” What?
A CORPSE ABANDONED IN A SLUM
One of Britain’s most distinguished crime novelists is a Scotsman who lives in Dunedin. Heretic by Liam McIlvanney is his much-anticipated sequel to the Scottish Crime Book of the Year, The Quaker. I interviewed Liam about that book onstage at the Dunedin writers festival a few years ago and remember him as a sensitive, intelligent kind of guy, not someone who takes pleasure in describing shocking violence and yet does so with a macabre attention to detail. Heretic is set in Glasgow in 1975. DI Duncan McCormack, who cracked The Quaker case, is asked to identify a corpse that’s found badly beaten and abandoned in a slum. With a masonic ring lodged on its broken finger, McCormack suspects the corpse is hiding a secret…
Two other new crime novels of note are Blood Matters, Renée’s sequel to The Wild Card, and Better than Blood by Michael Bennett, which has this rather fetching synopsis: “Hana Westerman is a tenacious Māori detective juggling single motherhood and the pressures of her career in Auckland’s Central Investigation Branch. When she’s led to a crime scene by a mysterious video, she discovers a man hanging in a secret room. As Hana and her team work to track down the killer, other deaths lead her to think that they are searching for New Zealand’s first serial killer.”
The art book of the year is surely going to be Toi Tu Toi Ora: Contemporary Māori Art, edited by Nigel Borell with Moana Jackson and Taarati Taiaroa. Based on the ground-breaking 2020-21 exhibition staged by Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki, Toi Tu Toi Ora tells the story of contemporary Māori art from the 1950s to the present day, with more than 200 works by 110 Māori artists. A foreword by Moana Jackson, along with Borell’s introduction, shares the history of contemporary Māori art within a kaupapa Māori worldview.
I’m also very keen to get my mitts on the Titus Press book Archetypes by Diana Halstead with an introduction by Scott Hamilton. It displays a remarkable series of drawings which saw Halstead begin with crayon, then added oil paint, then a layer of watercolour paint. From the blurbology: “This process has given the images a strange mixture of spontaneity and fustiness. The quickly drawn crayon lines make the pictures seem vigorous, intuitive. But the layers of paint obscure some of the crayon marks, and create a sense of age, even antiquity.”
YOU ALWAYS KNOW WHERE YOU ARE WITH HISTORICAL FICTION. YOU’RE IN THE PAST
It may well be the case that the biggest-selling novel of 2022 will be Harbouring, the new historical novel by a master of the form, The Denniston Rose author Jenny Pattrick. It has a great blurb: “It is 1839 and Huw Pengellin is desperate to find a better life for his family than the one he ekes out in Wales. His wife, Martha, is fully aware just how foolhardy Huw’s schemes can be, but she is keen to escape the foundry slums, as well as Huw’s brother Gareth, with his hot eyes and roving hands. Might Colonel Wakefield’s plans to take settlers to the distant shores of New Zealand offer a solution? On the other side of the world, watching the new arrivals, is Hineroa, who is also desperate to find a better life. Will she be a slave for ever, will she ever be reunited with her people, and will the ships that keep sailing into the bay bring further trouble? Change is underway, not just for these characters but also for the crescent of beach, thick bush and steep hills that are about to become the bustling settlement of Wellington.”
Also of note is Mrs Jewell and the Wreck of the General Grant by historical novelist Cristina Sanders. Her book Jerningham was a smash hit in 2020. Her latest novel is about the survivors from the gold-loaded vessel that was wrecked in the Auckland Islands and never seen again. One woman survived; the rest were men…
There are new collections by Elizabeth Smither, Robert Sullivan, Gregory O’Brien, and Chris Tse, whose lines include: “I wish people didn’t ask me how to solve a problem like racism, as if it is a cloud they cannot pin down.” Yes but why would anyone ask a poet in the first place? Surrey Hotel writers residency award winner Rebecca Hawkes makes her debut with Meat Lovers; one of my favourite New Zealand poets, Michael Steven, brings out Night School (it’s attracted a fantastic blurb from David Eggleton: “The poems in this collection read and feel as if they have been quarried out of silence and watchfulness and long contemplation of the dark night of the soul…He writes like someone fleeing an infernal and damned city, one about to be razed by a vengeful Old Testament God”), and events this weekend give a certain kind of resonance or poignancy to Sonnets for Sio by Scott Hamilton, in which the poems “look back on adventures the author and sculptor, painter, and mystic Visesio Siasau shared amidst the jungle ruins and kava bars of Tonga”.
MENOPAUSE IS SO HOT RIGHT NOW
There are two books about menopause due this year: This Changes Everything, a guide to menopause from health expert Niki Bezzant, and Don’t Sweat It by Nicky Pellegrino, blurbed thus: “Funny, frank and optimistic – a refreshing and up-to-the-minute guide to menopause and perimenopause for the modern woman. Forget the myths and misinformation, respected health writer Nicky Pellegrino has done the work for you in this empowering and honest book. It includes the latest research on everything from hormone replacement therapy to natural therapies and hot flushes, and the lowdown on how menopause can affect everything from your weight to your memory and sleep, to skyrocketing anxiety levels and your missing libido…Don’t Sweat It will help reshape how women experience menopause and perimenopause and show how life can be even better for it.”
THE BEST STORIES ARE SHORT STORIES
Three collections of short stories published this year are very promising: Home Theatre by Anthony Lapwood (a mother and her young son battle an infestation of ants; a bass player is beset by equine hallucinations), Beats of the Pa‘u by Maria Samuela (stories about first- and second-generation Cook Islands New Zealanders living in 1950s to modern-day New Zealand), and Kōhine by Colleen Maria Lenihan. I read the manuscript of Kōhine last year; it’s a knock-out, a compelling collection of stories about sex, death, race, cars and drugs, set in Japan and New Zealand, by the winner of the 2020 Newsroom-Surrey Hotel writers residency award.
ALMOST CERTAINLY THE BEST BOOK THIS YEAR ABOUT A PALEONTOLOGICAL SITE IN OTAGO
Foulden Maar by Daphne Lee tells of a site formed by a volcanic eruption 23 million years ago, which comprises tens of thousands of undisturbed annual layers that record the changing life and ecosystems in and around a small, deep volcanic crater lake that existed for more than 100,000 years at the very beginning of the Miocene. Her book celebrates the treasures of Foulden Maar, from plant fossils (leaves, fragile flowers with pollen, fruits, seeds, wood and fungi) to animal fossils from the freshwater lake and surrounding rainforest. These include the oldest known galaxiid fish on Earth and the first freshwater eel found in the Southern Hemisphere.
ReadingRoom will review or feature most of these titles during the year as part of our commitment to publishing the best coverage of books and authors in New Zealand.