The one approved publicity photo of Eleanor Catton currently being used across all media.

ReadingRoom returns to action in 2023 as literary editor Steve Braunias previews the year in New Zealand writing

The biggest news of the year in New Zealand writing is set to happen soon, very soon, with February 9 marked down as the publication day of the long-awaited new novel by New Zealand’s most famous living author, she of the Booker Prize, her of The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton. Her book Birnam Wood, surely, is going to be huge. But there is much else going on to make 2023 a particularly huge year for New Zealand books – and my feeling is that one or two novels might, might actually sell even more than Birnam Wood.

Catton’s third novel was first announced in 2017. It seemed like a done thing way back then. Her publisher, Fergus Barrowman, talked of paying a six-figure advance after reading a 20-page outline. She acknowledged that one of the main characters was partly inspired by Citizen Thiel. It would be psychological survivalist thriller set in the South Island where the wealthy take on back-to-the-landers on the eve of a global catastrophe. And then…silence, for six years. Well, it can take a long time to compose something fast, and Birnam Wood is a book that demands a fast response – I started it on Boxing Day, and was done by December 27. You may well read it even faster and wonder what the hell took me so long.

I’ve lined up week-long coverage of Birnam Wood at ReadingRoom. If anyone deserves that much hype, it’s Catton; she’s a star, a brand, Eleanor Inc., all that, but she’s also pretty much the smartest person in the room and warrants respect, close attention, the best minds of a generation to review her. Birnam Wood needs more than one review. It needs more than two reviews…The ReadingRoom review red carpet is set to roll out on February 9.

A typical year in New Zealand publishing would mean that nothing else would stand a show of competing with Birnam Wood. 2023 is an atypical and as such potentially wildly exciting year. Many readers will feel a lot more excited at the prospect of Becky Manawatu’s new novel than Eleanor Catton’s new novel; Mākaro Press will publish Kataraina, her sequel to the great Auē, in September.

Mākaro publisher Mary McCallum has given ReadingRoom an exclusive look at part of one of the chapters – and the blurb. “You are the first person to see any of this outside of Bex and me,” she emailed on Sunday. Cheers! And now ReadingRoom readers can see it.

The blurb, as worked by the publisher and the author: “In Auē eight-year-old Ārama was taken by his brother Taukiri to live with Kat and Stu at the farm in Kaikōura, setting in train the tragedy that unfolded. Ari’s aunty Kat was at the centre of events – but silenced by abuse, her side of the story was not recorded. In Kataraina, Kat takes back her voice and we return to the time when she first began to feel the greenness of the swamp in her veins – the swamp that holds all of her tears, shed and unshed; the swamp on the land owned by Stu that has been growing since the girl shot the man.

“Meanwhile the phenomenon of the expanding swamp has attracted field scientists looking for a rational explanation, but what they don’t see immediately is the need to go beyond the measurable to find an answer – which means digging into the nature of the whenua that surrounds it and the lives of the people who spilled their secrets into its heart.”

Nice coat: Becky Manawatu, photographed by Naomi Arnold

Oh and the excerpt from the chapter is great.

Auē, Kurangaituku…There is an appetite, a need for Māori stories. The biggest-selling novel of 2022 was Kāwai, Monty Soutar’s historical novel set in pre-European Aotearoa in the 1700s. The book is part of a trilogy; the second novel, Tree of Nourishment, is due later this year.

Other novels of note in 2023 include Lioness by Emily Perkins (a woman begins to look at her privileged and insular world with new eyes), The Deck by Fiona Farrell (about New Zealanders in lockdown during a future plague), and The Bone Tree by Airana Ngarewa (two brothers who must make their own way in the world after losing their parents). The times are right for a satire on unbearable liberals and on cue comes Kind – as in, I suppose, Jacinda Ardern’s famous dictum: “Be kind!” – by the wicked Stephanie Johnson (“#MeToo blunders and post-apocalyptic bolt holes, locking down and locking up”, raves the blurb). Kind might well sell its socks off as the tide turns on prescriptive hashtagological thinking, and I expect good sales, too, for Everything Is Beautiful and Everything Hurts by Josie Shapiro – she won the inaugural Allen & Unwin commercial fiction prize last year, and her debut novel is likely to appeal to many with its story about a woman athlete who has to fight for a shot at glory.

There’s one other novel set for 2023 which I think might set bookstores on fire. It might challenge Becky Manawatu’s Kataraina on the sales chart. It might, might even give Birnam Wood a run for its very good money. Them’s fighting words; and all of which is to herald the publication of One of Those Mothers, the debut novel by Megan Nicol Reed.

She used to be a columnist at Canvas. She took readers into her nice middle-class home, opened up about her nice middle-class marriage, and her nice middle-class readers were mad for it: the column was a sensation, and it was also constantly quite brilliant. It was funny, also heartfelt. One of Those Mothers sounds like it is, too. Advance publicity: “Megan stumbled across an article detailing a mother’s nightmare on discovering her daughter had been abused by a family friend. She says, ‘I realised that while I was horrified by it, what I really wanted to know more about was the devastation the girl’s disclosure had presumably wrecked upon her parents’ social circle…. I didn’t want to write a nice story. And so, I wrote a tale bookended by terrible things.’”

Could be huge, right? Advance publicity breathes, “A raw domestic thriller for fans of Liane Moriarty…If you were gripped by Big, Little Lies, you’ll love One Of Those Mothers.”

Maybe. Definitely, anyway, it’s a hell of a year for New Zealand fiction – oh and there’s also the return of Other Halves author Sue McCauley with her novel Landed, and short story collections from ReadingRoom alumni Emma Hislop (blurb for her book Ruin and other stories: “Women and girls walk a perilously thin line between ruin and redemption in these stories as they try—with varying degrees of success—to outmanoeuvre the violence that threatens to define their lives”), and How to Get Fired by Evana Belich (advance publicity: “she’s a lesbian, younger Owen Marshall!”)

Nice hat: Emma Espiner, photographed by Noelle McCarthy

To non-fiction. Titles to look forward to include a new biography of Katherine Mansfield, All Sorts of Lives by Claire Harman, which Vincent O’Sullivan will review for ReadingRoom; Fear: New Zealand’s Hostile Underworld of Extremists by Byron C Clark (how we ended up with the violent scenes outside Parliament last summer); a new edition of the classic photography book The South Island of New Zealand from the Road, by the late Robin Morrison; The Fate of the Land by Danny Keenan (about the struggle to hold on to what was left of Māori land between 1891 and 1912); The Book of Feeling Blue: Understand and manage depression, by the nation’s favourite shrink, Gwendoline Smith; and, thrillingly, Gangster’s Paradise by Jared Savage, his second investigation into organised crime. I’ve read the book and can confirm the guy is on fire with these stories of scary mofos running around New Zealand selling meth and sometimes getting busted, other times living large.

The best books of the past two years have been memoirs. The best memoirs scheduled for 2023 include Laughing at the Dark by Barbara Else, The Queen’s Wife by Joanne Drayton (“In 1989, two married women met by chance. They instantly hit it off, but little did they know that their new relationship would turn their lives upside-down”), and the eyecatchingly titled Practical Skills for the Zombie Apocalypse by Dr Emma Espiner. She says of it, “I graduated as a doctor in 2020 and arrived into the Covid-19 pandemic with my ta moko on my arm, my hospital lanyard, my stethoscope and a purpose. I don’t know why medicine felt like coming home. I had no right to have that experience, but for some reason it fits.”

I love everything Emma writes. Her Newsroom column from a few years ago was a model of poise and clear thinking. I mightily look forward to her memoir. Right now, at this point in the year, I think it might, might have an even chance of following on from The Mirror Book by Charlotte Grimshaw (2021) and Grand by Noelle McCarthy (2022) to become the best book of the year. That would be one hell of an achievement in a year of Eleanor Catton, Becky Manawatu, Emily Perkins, and the rest of the novel-writing cohort; but truth, beautifully and honestly told, can so easily be stronger than fiction.

ReadingRoom will continue its mission throughout 2023 as the only mainstream media devoted exclusively to New Zealand books.

Steve Braunias is the literary editor of Newsroom's books section ReadingRoom, a noted writer at the NZ Herald, and the author of 10 books.

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