A rare victory for populism has been declared at this morning’s announcement of the 16 books shortlisted for the 2023 Ockham New Zealand national books, with the biggest-selling novel of the past year, Kāwai: For Such a Time as This by Monty Soutar, making it onto the shortlist of four novels for the fiction prize. Commentary to follow, on fiction and the other categories; right now, the shortlist.


Kāwai: For Such a Time as This by Monty Soutar (Bateman Books)

The Axeman’s Carnival by Catherine Chidgey (Te Herenga Waka University Press)

Mrs Jewell and the Wreck of the General Grant by Cristina Sanders (The Cuba Press)

Better the Blood by Michael Bennett (Simon & Schuster)

Soutar’s ambitious historical novel – set in 1700s New Zealand Aotearoa before the arrival of whitey, it dealt in intimate detail with kaitangata, or cannibalism – has sold its socks off and secured the number one spot on the Nielsen chart for four months. Books that people actually buy commonly get short shrift at the Ockhams. A romance novel has never made the cut and likely never will, and crime fiction, too, has been unwelcome – but Michael Bennett’s cop procedural Better the Blood has also made the fiction shortlist alongside Kāwai. Two genre novels, by two Māori authors, and a third novel on the shortlist is another historical novel (Mrs Jewell and the Wreck of the General Grant by Cristina Sanders) … New Zealand literature is responding to social change, to a loosening of old models of excellence, to a wider appreciation of fiction beyond the IIML conveyor belt of literary fiction by women writers as daintily packaged by Te Herenga Waka University Press.

But I think the winner of this year’s fiction will be an author exactly in that venerable literary establishment tradition: Catherine Chidgey. Her book The Axeman’s Carnival is surely the most complete work of art on the shortlist. To write a book told by a magpie is an audacious idea that would defeat a lesser talent but Chidgey is a writer of considerable range and inventiveness. Rachael King’s rave review of The Axeman’s Carnival was unequivocal: “The Axeman’s Carnival is remarkable, brilliant, a classic in the making …. All hail, Chidgey.” Surely the Ockhams will hail Chidgey, too, but its strongest challenge will likely be Kāwai. Soutar’s novel speaks more directly to New Zealand life, even though it’s set 300 years ago. Rachel King placed The Axeman’s Carnival in a cultural tradition of  New Zealand gothic: poetry by James K Baxter poem, films such as Vigil and The Piano. But these are white settler narratives. Soutar dealt exclusively in a Māori narrative. From Wiremu Kane’s review of Soutar’s debut: “Matua Monty draws on his expertise as a historian to immerse the reader in a pre-colonial Aotearoa that teems with texture, life, and details that will delight, shock, and surprise even readers familiar with the period. More impressively, he forces the reader to examine this complicated world and how they might’ve fitted into it.”

I haven’t read Better the Blood by Michael Bennett. Crime fiction aficionado Greg Fleming wrote in Kete that it was about a Māori detective investigating a serial killer. I haven’t read Mrs Jewell and the Wreck of the General Grant by Cristina Sanders, either, but I was much intrigued by her fascinating background story in ReadingRoom: “The General Grant was a ship that wrecked on the Auckland Islands in 1866 carrying a cargo that included an undetermined amount of gold and 83 passengers. Eighteen months later, 10 survivors were rescued by a whaling brig … Mrs Jewell and the Wreck of the General Grant is my fictional interpretation of what happened to the 14 men and one woman who survived and lived as castaways on a bleak and stormy sub-Antarctic island.”

Bravo to all four authors; and bravo, too, to independent publishers Bateman Books (for Kāwai) and The Cuba Press (for Mrs Jewell). Bateman revitalised its publishing list last year and got off to a sensational start with the success of Soutar’s novel; Cuba Press is masterminded by Mary McCallum, who has a fantastic instinct for popular, quality fiction. You may have heard of a novel she published a few years ago for Mākaro Press: Auē .


To illustrated non-fiction.


Robin White: Something is Happening Here edited by Sarah Farrar, Jill Trevelyan and Nina Tonga (Te Papa Press and Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki)

Te Motunui Epa by Rachel Buchanan (Bridget Williams Books)

Jumping Sundays: The Rise and Fall of the Counterculture in Aotearoa New Zealand by Nick Bollinger (Auckland University Press)

Secrets of the Sea: The Story of New Zealand’s Native Sea Creatures by Robert Vennell (HarperCollins)

I think there are two main contenders to win the prize. Te Motunui Epa by Rachel Buchanan is a knock-out. Jonathan Barrett’s review (which I clickbaitingly headlined ‘White man’s blunder’) praised the story of a set of pātaka panels that were illegally removed, acquired by a Swiss-based collector, and eventually repatriated to Taranaki in 2014: “It’s beautifully designed and realised. Judge this book by its lovely cover. In her account of a lost and retrieved treasure, Buchanan has herself created a taonga.” But surely the most beautiful title on the shortlist is the big coffee-table book on Robin White. My review of Something Is Happening Here was really a portrait of her friendship with Sam Hunt: “Like White, he was drawn to the small towns, the quiet afternoons, the long shadows; in his poems and her pictures, the two visionaries formed a kind of collaboration, both capturing New Zealand with the same affection, the same intent … White painted Hunt, and turned him into an icon. He was the hero of her work, a super-bohemian in a bright white singlet. She painted Mangaweka, Maketū, and Mana, and turned them into icons, too.” Her book is a gallery of such icons.

I haven’t read a third book on the shortlist, Secrets of the Sea by Robert Vennelll. I assigned one of New Zealand’s most astute social commentators to review the fourth shortlisted title, Nick Bollinger’s book on the 70s counterculture in New Zealand. From David Slack’s review of Jumping Sundays:  “The author’s tone remains kind, sympathetic to the tentative naivete of much of it; inspired and noble, hapless and clueless.” The writing is excellent, but the production less so, nowhere near the lusciousness of the Robin White book, and in this category you have to go for looks.


To non-fiction.


Grand: Becoming my Mother’s Daughter by Noelle McCarthy (Penguin, Penguin Random House)

A Fire in the Belly of Hineāmaru: A Collection of Narratives about Te Tai Tokerau Tūpuna by Melinda Webber and Te Kapua O’Connor  (Auckland University Press)

Downfall: The Destruction of Charles Mackay by Paul Diamond (Massey University Press)

The English Text of the Treaty of Waitangi by Ned Fletcher (Bridget Williams Books)

I’ll keep it brief: I thought that far and away the best book of any kind published in New Zealand in 2022 was Grand by Noelle McCarthy so of course I hope it wins the nonfiction award. The other three titles are models of solid, respectful, patient scholarship, and Paul Diamond adds a storytelling flair to his book Downfall, which tells the old story of the 1920 Whanganui blackmail case (the mayor shot and wounded a young gay poet, and was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to 15 years’ hard labour). But Grand is an exquisite work of art. From Rachael King’s rave review: “At the heart of this book is a revelation about lines of women in families, and trauma, and how it has the potential to repeat. In fiction, in myth, we’d say we are doomed to repeat it … You’d never wish material this good for a memoir on anyone. It’s complex, thrilling and raw. It even has a perfect beginning, middle and end. It’s the opposite of comfort reading. And yet the ending is so tender, peaceful.”


To poetry.


Always Italicise: How to Write While Colonised by Alice Te Punga Somerville (Auckland University Press)

People Person by Joanna Cho (Te Herenga Waka University Press)

Sedition by Anahera Maire Gildea (Taraheke | Bush Lawyer)

We’re All Made of Lightning by Khadro Mohamed (We Are Babies Press, Tender Press)

I didn’t read the debut collection by Khadro Mohamed. I loved the long poem about Auckland’s famous Mad Ave by Alice Te Punga Somerville in her book Always Italicise:

the flats on mad ave and esperance

were emptied out

boarded up

and then


mum says the saddest thing

was seeing the taro patches

who didn’t know to stop growing:

weedy offcuts of gardens

resistance of leaves and stems.

Fergus Porteous’ review of People Person by Joanna Cho was also actually a memoir of their sad love affair; her particular brilliance with narrative included these mordant lines of heartbreak, or something resembling heartbreak:

I tried to be chill, for you and for me.
I tried to be chill,
but at the gig I scoped out the exit, just in case,
and you sculled your beer and turned
cos there was nothing left to say.

The next day we walked around town
and noticed the loop pedal at the busker’s feet.

We got hungry.
We got food.

I knew these would be our last fish and chips

I think the strongest collection in the shortlist is Sedition by Anahera Maire Gildea. I published her sensational poem about whitey taking te reo in ReadingRoom, and it was a smash hit with readers:

My neighbour is learning te reo. Man he’s proud.

His long body of white

flicking hair, conquering language. He doesn’t feel

an inch of guilt. Nothing. Man he’s proud.

I’ve learned my mihi, he says,

where you say your mountain and stuff. He struts

and tells me his mang-ga. His mow-anna.

The Ockham New Zealand national book awards will be held on May 17.

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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