READ FOR BOOKCLUB
Chosen by Rachel
An investigation of an elderly woman’s mental wanderings after finding a note referring to a murder.
⫸ “Vesta Gul is an expected Moshfegh character: a female loner with convoluted, dangerous thoughts. She is 72, living alone in the woods after the death of her husband, with only her dog Charlie for company.
“After discovering a note in the woods that reads ‘Her name was Magda. No body will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body’, Vesta starts a crusade to discover the truth about Magda. However, her over imagination gets away with her to the point it is difficult to work out what is real and what is imagined.
“But this is fiction, so everything is imagined, and Magda is as much a character as Vesta. As such, it becomes a kind of post-modern scrutiny of the processes of fiction writing, with a power play of narrative authority between Otessa Moshfegh writing Vesta Gul, and Vesta Gul writing Magda.”
⫸ “A fabulous study of loneliness and of the impact of living with an oppressor on the psyche. Vesta slowly reveals the details of her suffocating marriage at the same time as she imagines the life of the unknown Magda. The two are clearly linked. Her obsession with the murder allows Vesta the same freedoms and clarity as she has given her imagined Magda and so her unreliability deepens. Death In Her Hands is a dark, mysterious novel which I found compelling as a character study on madness. I could not predict the outcome and had to invest time and effort into working out what was real and what was imagined. I really enjoyed it.” – Rachel
⫸ “Reading this book over a relatively short period of time I almost felt like I was experiencing the same uncertainty and confusion as the main character Vesta. As we moved into her spiralling thoughts I felt increasingly uncomfortable – I was less concerned with ‘solving the mystery’ and more worried for her wellbeing. Overall it was a very compelling read. Side note – this is the second fictional dog called Charlie I have come across where things have not gone well for the owner (I’m looking at you A Star is Born).” – Suzy
⫸ “The protagonist started off as someone who seemed sane and quite interesting, though somewhat neurotic, and her gradual slide downhill into incoherence was convincingly portrayed. It was often difficult to interpret what was real and what wasn’t and this added to the intrigue. Revelations about Vesta’s marriage became darker and darker as we moved through the book. It was almost as if she was slowly choosing to open up to the reader, revealing more intimate details as the story unfolded. The novel had a great ending that was sad but strangely satisfying.” – Jo
⫸ “I appreciated the concept of the novel which is essentially a story within a story and found that quite interesting. The second half of the story became more thrilling as Vesta’s mental health began to decline and her confused state led us into the sometimes dark, sometimes pitiful meanderings of her mind. A clever and well written book but to be honest it wasn’t really for me.” – Jodie
READ FOR BOOKCLUB
Chosen by Jodie
A successful young woman’s life spirals into a depressive breakdown.
⫸ “Esther Greenwood’s story is remarkably similar to Sylvia Plath’s own life and struggles and is considered autobiographical fiction, despite being written under a pseudonym.
“Esther is an editor with mental illness who soon succumbs to being institutionally committed, fighting off her suicidal tendencies. Despite its grim plot, the book is considered a telling of truth and one which has helped women find acceptance in themselves and each other.
“The Bell Jar was published 30 years ago when such acknowledgement of mental illness was not forthcoming. Perhaps this makes Plath a leader in the frank discussion of this topic. Certainly the content of her book only becomes more and more relevant as times goes on.
Because wherever I sat—on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok—I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.
⫸ “Weeks after reading The Bell Jar I was still affected by it, and found myself thinking about Esther like she was someone I knew. It’s a very power novel – a heartbreaking insight to the suffering that inflicts people with depression. Sadly the novel is semi autobiographical, and I was haunted throughout the novel knowing that Sylvia herself battled with the same struggles.” –Jodie
⫸ “The Bell Jar is less shocking the second time around but there is one image that has stayed with me, and that was the protagonist squashed into a space under the floor of the house after taking loads of pills. It is utterly horrible.
“I think Sylvia has described or explained depression so convincingly and in a captivating way that this dark story is not hard to read but, surprisingly, a joy. How on earth did she make such a depressing story not depressing? The dark humour was clever, perhaps that helped.” – Jo
⫸ “This was my second read of The Bell Jar and my vague recollection of it being mostly a bit of black humour akin to Catcher in the Rye turned out to be very wrong.
“While there were the occasional bleakly funny moments it was the brutal account of Esther’s descent into mental illness that was central to the book and made for a distressing read. Knowing the author’s history made it even harder to bear.
“I often think of Esther’s beautiful words towards the end of the book: “I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am”. I will never not feel sad about Sylvia Plath and The Bell Jar.” – Suzy
⫸ “Investing one’s time into 300 pages of a break down is not usually considered fun. However, despite the misery and sadness of The Bell Jar there is an abject realism to the story that makes it not only accepting but strangely enjoyable.
“Esther is such a real character that her loves and lives and thoughts formed in my mind like a truth and I felt her pains, her joys and every tiny step she took both forward and backward in her mental health journey. There are very few authors who can write so succinctly yet so convincingly in a way that breaks your heart. Well mine anyway. Stunningly beautiful.” – Rachel
Published in 1953
Suzy: “All four books seemed completely deserving of their place on the shortlist. While I would have thought the judges may have leaned more towards Nothing to See I am not mad at all about Bug Week winning. There are flashes from the various Bug Week stories that still sit with me and resonate – I think about that damn talking toroa a lot more than I would like to admit. Please stop haunting me talking toroa!
‘With Remote Sympathy set outside NZ it felt quite separate from the other books, but this was neither a good or bad thing – it just felt ‘different’. I don’t think I will ever be able to face finishing Sprigs, but I deeply appreciate Brannavan Gnanalingam diving so sensitively into such a distressing topic.
“I regret not being able to finish these books before the actual winner was announced, hopefully 2022 will be a more settled year!”
Rachel: “The commonality I found in the four shortlisters this year was how the voices of those we might not usually hear from formed a powerful discussion point. All these books went to extra lengths to ensure their characters, whether good, bad or misunderstood were human, with all their personality traits out in the open. As the reader I connected with them all, for better or worse, because they were so fully developed. I heard point of views I had not before. I also felt ownership over how I could feel about them, even the truely terrible ones, rather than pushed into an emotional corner. To me, this gift of understanding was the best feature of this lineup.
“I did enjoy all the titles for their brave storylines, though to varying degrees and that doesn’t mean I’d recommend them all. Full disclosure, we are a little late this year and I am writing this knowing who the winner is. And I can see why it won. Though not a short story fan myself, Bug Week was probably one of the best short story collections I’ve read. However, the book that stood out most to me was Remote Sympathy. I was captured by every character’s tale and enjoyed just how uncomfortably comfortable I was, lost in the plot.” – Rachel
Read for NZ Book Awards
An inmate at Buchenwald concentration camp aids the commandant who is trying to save his wife’s life
⫸ “Remote Sympathy tells the stories of several people and families who all have one thing in common: the Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar, Germany.
“At the midst of the story are a commandant, placed in charge of the problematic camp, and his young, sick wife whom he’s trying to save; and a prisoner searching for information on his family, who invented a strange medical invention which may just save the commandant’s wife.
“The story is told in alternating dialogues from these characters, Doktor Weber, Herr Hahn, Frau Hahn, who tell their stories, their dreams, their hopes, their personal trials and tribulations living in a most unique situation, where captor and prisoner are secretly working in partnership. A fourth narrative is provided by the “citizens of Weimar” a community which stood by while men were starved and tortured all around them; a community wiling to be silent bystanders.
“The camp was a real place and Chidgey has combined a good portion of fact alongside the fiction. Several real Germans are detailed, along with their crimes and punishments, and some of Herr Hahn’s contributions are comments made by the real Buchenwald commandant when interrogated by the Americans in 1954. This foundation of truth builds a solid base to help humanise the fictional characters and their stories.
“The fact that Chidgey speaks German, has spent a lot of time living in Berlin, and was a recipient of a Berlin writing fellowship are probably why she writes with such authority about this era.”
⫸ “At the onset of reading this book, I looked at the 510 pages and wondered how this war story would be different to the many others that have been recorded over time. But, from the opening pages Catherine Chidgey proved there are so many more stories to be told. I was hooked immediately. Lenard Weber is likeable and I immediately felt connected to his story and his family.
“What’s more I also felt connected to Dietrich Hahn and his family. He was a despicable person who oversaw and instigated Holocaust crimes we are all familiar with. It’s disturbing and revolting and like the residents of Weimar it is sometimes easier to look away. But what stuck with me just as much was the image of Dietrich carving wooden animals for his doting son and desperately trying to save his dying wife whom he loved so much. I wouldn’t say I liked him, but these affections made him more of a complete person, rather than just the villain. I enjoy this conflicting feeling towards a character. It indicates to me an incredibly talented author.” – Rachel
⫸ “Remote Sympathy felt to me like one of the most perfectly written novels I have read in a long time. I wonder whether it was the circular nature of the storyline that felt so satisfying?
“The content was at times completely horrific and it was interesting to get perspectives from characters on both sides. Humanising a leader of a concentration camp is certainly a skill and Catherine Chidgey does this so well, even though of course we are left in no doubt that the man in question is a monster.
“The meticulous research that is referred to in the Author’s Note never felt laboured while reading Remote Sympathy and the blend of fact and fiction was seamless.” – Suzy
Read for NZ Book Awards
From 1960s Wellington to post-Communist Germany, Bug Week traverses the weird, the wry and the grotesque.
⫸ “Bug Week is a collection of short stories set predominately in Wellington, offering weird and wonderful fragments of people’s lives.
“There are bug collectors, necrophiliacs, an albatross at an open mic night, and body parts washed up on a river bank. The social settings and voices are never the same, rather the stories showcase a varied and authentic collection of characters, relaying unexpected stories of human relationships.
“Despite the focus on the cynical and perverse, there is an element of comedy amongst the tragedy, to avoid the reader taking things too seriously.”
⫸ “I have some kind of weird resistance to short stories in general – maybe too much analysis in sixth form at school rather than reading for pleasure? So I started Bug Week with a bit of trepidation. I wasn’t just pleasantly surprised, but genuinely enjoyed these beautifully written stories.
“Often a gentle tone would lead into an unexpectedly grim event however as a reader I continued to be drawn into a story and lulled into a rhythm only for a turn of events to throw things off balance. This was never jarring in a way that made for an unpleasant reading experience, it was done perfectly.
“I tried to guess which of my colleagues would play the starring roles of the eponymous Bug Week and for that I can only apologise to them. I also do need to mention the final story which probably goes down as The Worst Short Story I Have Ever Read.” – Suzy
⫸ “Bug Week is a good example of why I don’t often read short stories. Just as I fall in love with the story and become emotionally invested in the characters, it is over. I get new book apprehension and end-of-book despair repeatedly and the mid-story joy doesn’t long last enough.
“Yes I did feel connected to each and every story in this collection; they were engaging, connected and piqued my interest instantly. Beautrais has a knack for conveying a maximum amount of content in a minimal amount of words and has an appealing wry humour. She knows just when to finish the story too for maximum frustration!
“I know this review is a bit of a backhanded compliment, in that I enjoyed the book so much it annoyed me there wasn’t more to enjoy. I do appreciate this is a fantastic example of its form, it’s just not my favoured type of read.” – Rachel
Read for NZ Book Awards
A brutal story of rugby, rape and toxic masculinity.
⫸ “After a Wellington School’s revered rugby final, a 15-year-old year is gang raped at the after party.
“However there is much more to Sprigs than that. Gnanalingam then goes on to make us privvy to the thoughts, actions and emotions of all involved. From the victims, to the perpetrators, the families, friends and even the school leaders, unsure how to deal with the aftermath. And that is the real point of the novel, understanding how far the damage of such a crime extends. Obviously the victim is deeply harmed but such a display of hurt and hate damages all of the community.
“The book opens with a trigger warning, and though the defilement is not detailed as it happens, we are fed disturbing snippets of memory and large chunks of reaction and emotion in the remainder of the pages – a reminder of the flashbacks and stabs of emotion which are with victims forever.
“It is a grim book, with a heavy storyline, but there is life too, and a little bit of hope.”
⫸ “There were two things that put me off Sprigs before I even started reading: a ‘content will disturb’ warning, and a three-page character list. Then there was a 70-page rugby game …
“However, in the end I did enjoy the book more than I thought I would. It was horrible, revolting and downright sad, but I appreciated how the author took us into the minds of everyone involved. Not only the victim but the rapists, who all reacted in very different ways after the event, from remorse to indifference.
“I hadn’t thought (hadn’t want to think) about what goes through a rapist’s mind afterwards, but I imagine this is a realistic portrayal. That ability to produce a study of their minds was ultimately what impressed me. But I can’t think of many people I would recommend this to.” – Rachel
⫸ “I kind of scoffed at the content warning at the start of Sprigs – I have read so many books where so many horrible things happen and therefore thought I was kind of immune to whatever storyline might be presented to me.
“I think Sprigs is one of the very few books I have not been able to finish due to the upsetting content. Over the years I’ve become very adept at skim reading or skipping sections that linger on violence. It was impossible to do this with Sprigs as assault isn’t just part of a storyline, it is the storyline.
“The scene in the hospital with the victim and her mother made me feel physically ill – the sadness, the deflection, the shame, the guilt, the how-do-I-make-this-go-away-forever. It indicated the beginning of a horrendous journey that as a reader I did not want to be a part of.
“I felt at that stage I couldn’t accept any storyline outcome that didn’t involve justice at the least and extreme vengeance at most and I did not get the sense from Sprigs that this was going to happen – it was this accurate reflection of reality by the author that was perhaps hardest to bear.” – Suzy
Read for NZ Book Awards
Peggy and Greta become sober, using a unique form of identity as a coping mechanism
⫸ “The lives of Peggy and Greta are detailed in three different decades in this book. In 1994 they are aged 24 and breaking free of alcohol and a traumatic past; in 2006 they have jobs and are coping well; in 2018 Margaret is working in surveillance technology and struggling with mental illness.
“It sounds banal but the book is about more than the sum of their every day activities. It showcases how trauma can lead people to live in a transitional state with a fragmented sense of time, space and self; people who, just by existing, challenge the norms of society.
“Without adding a spoiler alert, the characters in this book certainly do have complexities that challenge society norms and your own understanding of personality and identity. For the characters, self-acceptance is no easy feat, but they persevere for if they do not accept their own intricacies, no one will. And ultimately, understanding their intricacies is the beauty of the story.”
⫸ “Nothing To See had me interested and engaged right from the start. A relatively straightforward storyline soon gave way to the sense that something was definitely not right, but what that was exactly …hmmm.
“I was somehow in the position throughout the novel of discomfort with the main characters. I just wanted everything to be normal. Was that the author’s writing or was it more an indictment on me and my own lack of tolerance? It couldn’t have been empathy because the characters were clearly happier when in their state of being ‘different’.
“There was a bit of confusion for me at the end but the twists were definitely nowhere near The New Animals. A beautiful read and one I would definitely recommend.” – Suzy
⫸ “I’m torn on the success of Nothing To See. Part of me admires it for its unique take on character constructs, for it certainly was unique and offered an insight into the minds of people who identify differently to what we expect. This storyline is complete and interesting and in my mind was story enough.
“However I expected the “surveillance capitalism” slug that accompanied the book’s marketing to play a bigger part in the story. I was constantly analysing the plot to see how this fits in. There’s mention of surveillance technology in the 2018 chapters, but to be honest I didn’t think this made it a major theme of the book, unless how we perceive Peggy and Greta is a metaphor for this.
“If I had accepted the book as is and didn’t look for extra meaning I think I would have enjoyed it more. But all in all, it is very cleverly written and intelligent, and it represents the New Zealand fiction genre with mana.” – Rachel
Chosen by Rachel
A wife is permitted to hurt her husband three times after his affair is discovered.
⫸ “In Greek mythology a harpy is a half bird-half woman. As a bird of prey it has wide wings and sharp talons, yet the face of a woman. They are agents of punishment, abducting people and torturing them on their way to Hades in the underworld.
“In Megan Hunter’s book a bored housewife becomes harpy-ish after she learns of her husband’s infidelity. In an effort to keep the family together the couple agree she shall be allowed to hurt him three times as revenge.
“As Lucy carries out her retribution, Hunter details it with prose that is distant and numbing. One reviewer described her writing style like watching the family inside a specimen jar and that is an apt description, for the reader is always treated like an outsider peeping in; a fly on the wall. A harpy circling above.
“Lucy is a sad character with no friends and a lonely existence. Her thoughts and emotions, her recollections of her dysfunctional childhood are all highly detailed. Even the detached part of her that relates to being a harpy gets a voice in italicised sections throughout. Yet her husband Jake is not allocated much of a personality, nor a motive for his infidelity. His characterisation is vague and it could have been beneficial to learn more about him.
“Ultimately things unravel, like a slow motion train wreck before our eyes. Lucy becomes consumed with being a harpy and its clear from the start this was never going to end well.”
“So would we recommend this book? Jo: “yes but I’d be selective about who I recommended it to.” Jodie: “yes it’s engaging and beautifully written.” Becks: “yes I would. Even though it was a bit twisted it was beautifully written and got me thinking.” Rachel: “I wouldn’t offer a blanket recommendation but to certain people yes I’d definitely encourage them to read it.”