And the winner is Tama the magpie. The Axeman’s Carnival, Ngaruawahia writer Catherine Chidgey’s novel told in babbling, quardling English by a bird, has won the $64,000 fiction prize at the Ockham book awards.
Other winners include Auckland lawyer Ned Fletcher, awarded the nonfiction prize for his unreadable 700-page legal presentation of The English Text of the Treaty of Waitangi, and Nick Bollinger, who won the illustrated nonfiction prize for his lively scrapbook on the 1970s counterculture, Jumping Sundays. Alice Te Punga Somerville became the first Māori writer since Hone Tuwhare in 2002 to win the poetry prize for her collection Always Italicise: How to Write While Colonised.
The first book prizes were all won by deserving and excellent books. Grand by Noelle McCarthy, far and away the most lucid prose writer of 2022, won best first book of nonfiction. Far and away the year’s best cookbook, Kai by Christall Lowe, won best first book of illustrated nonfiction, and the art and craft of the short story was recognised with Anthony Lapwood winning the best first book of fiction award for his superb collection Home Theatre. His book of stories was published by Te Herenga Waka University Press, which further confirmed its status as the premier publisher of quality fiction in New Zealand: it published The Axeman’s Carnival, a book so imaginative, so brilliantly realised, so very New Zealand Gothic, that it was pretty much destined to win the 2023 Jann Medlicott Acorn fiction prize.
Certainly it was the firm favourite in an eccentric shortlist of two debut novels by documentarians (historian Monty Soutar, documentary maker Michael Bennett) trying out fiction for the first time with inevitably mixed results, and a shipwreck saga by Cristina Sanders. A literary success, a popular success – The Axeman’s Carnival has fixed itself on the bestseller chart since it was published in October, and it received more nominations than any other title by ReadingRoom readers who were asked to name their favourite New Zealand book of 2022. Their vote might be regarded as an informal People’s Choice award.
It’s not the first time a poll went her way. Twenty years ago, in 2003, as books editor at the Listener, I ripped off the Granta idea of recognising the best writers under 40 by polling about 50-60 people in the books trade to nominate the best young New Zealand writers. Chidgey – then the author of three novels – won by a landslide. (I really ought to stage a repeat of the exercise. You would expect Rebecca K Riley, Tayi Tibble, Kōtuku Titihuia Nuttall and maybe even one or two writers not published by Te Herenga Waka University Press to be among that elite).
But there’s a sense that Chidgey is a late developer: there was a gap of 13 years before she re-emerged as a novelist, with The Wish Child, her wildly successful book set in Hitler’s Germany. It won the fiction prize at the 2017 national book awards and her 2020 novel Remote Sympathy was a finalist. Like Wish Child, it also centred on a family against a backdrop of the Holocaust. Synopsis, startlingly: “The looming presence of the nearby prison camp – lying just beyond a patch of forest – is the only blot to mar what is otherwise an idyllic life in Buchenwald.”
Chidgey is clearly on a roll. Four books in six years – no, wait, make that five books in seven years. Her latest novel Pet is due in just a few weeks time. It’s already been chosen as Book of the Month by The Bookseller magazine in the UK. It wrote: “The atmosphere of small-town New Zealand, with misogyny and heart-breaking casual racism, is perfectly pitched….With a deft structure, containing a few stings in the tail, this heartfelt story is a superb character study, delivered with panache.” Philip Matthews, named best reviewer of the year at the 2022 Voyager Media Awards, has been tasked with reviewing Pet for ReadingRoom: to review the best, you require the services of the best.
Also as such, The Axeman’s Carnival will be assessed in ReadingRoom on Thursday by likely the smartest thinker in New Zealand letters, Professor Jane Stafford. “Reminiscent,” she writes, giving Chidgey no higher praise, “of Frame.”
Her next work of fiction is published on Saturday when her short story “Babydoll”, about a meth-head, will appear in ReadingRoom. You will not be surprised that it is very, very good.
JANN MEDLICOTT ACORN PRIZE FOR FICTION
The Axeman’s Carnival by Catherine Chidgey (Te Herenga Waka University Press)
GENERAL NONFICTION AWARD
The English Text of the Treaty of Waitangi by Ned Fletcher (Bridget Williams Books)
BOOKSELLERS AOTEAROA NEW ZEALAND AWARD FOR ILLUSTRATED NONFICTION
Jumping Sundays: The Rise and Fall of the Counterculture in Aotearoa New Zealand by Nick Bollinger (Auckland University Press)
MARY AND PETER BIGGSY AWARD FOR POETRY
Always Italicise: How to Write While Colonised by Alice Te Punga Somerville (Auckland University Press)
EH MCCORMICK AWARD FOR BEST FIRST BOOK OF NONFICTION
Grand: Becoming my Mother’s Daughter by Noelle McCarthy (Penguin Random House)
JUDITH BINNEY PRIZE FOR BEST FIRST BOOK OF ILLUSTRATED NONFICTION
Kai: Food Stories and Recipes from my Family Table by Christall Lowe (Bateman)
HUBERT CHURCH AWARD FOR BEST FIRST BOOK OF FICTION
Home Theatre by Anthony Lapwood (Te Herenga Waka University Press)
JESSIE MACKAY PRIZE FOR BEST FIRST BOOK OF POETRY
We’re All Made of Lightning by Khadro Mohamed (We Are Babies Press, Tender Press)