Internationality, borders and sentimentality over the comforts of home have been under the microscope lately with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. When disaster strikes it’s in one’s nature to analyse what home really means, what it comprises and the emotions it stirs up. But once snug in that domestic nest, global considerations come into play. What are the international influences that help shape our sense of home? What other usefulness can be found outside our borders? What do we have to offer the world?
These reflections are particularly relevant to the Ockham NZ Book Awards shortlist of 2020. Firstly the awards evening is cancelled, the nominees to learn their fate by video stream. And the six week lockdown was the perfect time to devour the shortlists.
Secondly there’s the fact that two fiction nominees are very New Zealand books, while the other two are seemingly international books exploring the wide-reaching topics of suicide and medical misadventure.
One of the two quintessential Kiwi books is Pearly Gates, a character study of a Baby Boomer from a recognisable NZ town, recalling his dreams of being an All Black. The town and its residents are so developed, reading the book is like living in the town. Like them or loathe them, there is no denying this is one take on what it means to be a Kiwi.
The other is Auē, a book about poverty and violence, particularly in past years and a look at how we have grown and how we must continue to self analyse to cure ourselves of this horrific cycle. It’s a redemptive book, studying quite a different side to New Zealand life but again there is no denying the ambitioius hope of Kiwis is found in many places.
Halibut on The Moon is written by an American turned New Zealander and is set in Alaska and California. It reads like an international book and has surprised many Kiwi lit fans about its inclusion. No it does not offer a recognisable Kiwi setting but it is written by a New Zealander and showcases the ever increasing level of talent being imported and bred here.
A Mistake is based in New Zealand, but its story about culpability in the medical world is universal and could be set in any hospital anywhere in the world. Its study about best practices of medical reporting may take on a different meaning now with the threat of Covid lurking in every corner.
So, two books to ground us at home, two books to influence our relationship with the world, all deserving of their place on the shortlist.
Rachel: “To me there is a clear winner and that is Halibut On The Moon (but we rarely correctly pick prize winners so have probably just jinxed you David Vann – apologies). To read this book is to live the life of Jim. Its autobiographical nature ensures Vann is able to recreate the scenes with conviction. His bravery in revealing his past trauma is offset by a dark humour and retains the complete fiction experience (unlike last year’s winner which to me read more like non fiction). It is amazing the styles, the emotions, the seemingly antithetical threads Vann has pulled together to make this story perfect. If he doesn’t win it would surely only be because the judges don’t consider his book reflects Kiwi life enough. But in my opinion the characters’ empathy and concern for one another, plus the story’s dark humour are pretty well recognised Kiwi traits. I think it’s the most well written shortlister and it deserves to win. In saying that I would not be unhappy if Auē took home the Acorn. Manawatu is talented and I look forward to her future literary career.”
Suzy: “I have so enjoyed this shortlist and would be delighted for any of the authors to win. The standout sucker punch book for me was Halibut on the Moon, but only by the smallest amount. It’s hard to pick a second, third and fourth from the others as they were all so damn good, but if I had to I’d cheat slightly and put Auē and Pearly Gates at second equal. Feels pretty mean to A Mistake though because that was damn excellent too. Can’t wait for the announcement!”
Auē is about the struggles to escape a life of violence
✚ “A young man called Tauriki decides to undertake a quest to locate his birth mother. Responsible for his orphaned half brother Ārama, he entrusts the boy’s care to an aunt and uncle. But it is a home where violence and fear are rife. Interspersed with the two brothers’ stories are the voices of their parents, telling their stories from years earlier where gang life was their every day.
“It goes without saying there is a lot of violence in this novel. It is sometimes so unbearable it’s hard to look at the words. But such violence has and does exist. Some people succumb to what is ingrained in them and some fight their way out. The author dedicated the book to a family member who was brutally murdered. Knowing this makes the novel’s violence important. We need to know so we can unite against it. Manawatu does this with a strong thematic sense of redemption and whakapapa.
“And that’s what kept me reading – the beautiful characters and their poignant stories. Their friendships and their hopes were a reprieve to the horrors. They, infact, had me so entranced I polished the book off in a very short space of time.
“There are a lot of neat and tidy conclusions in the final chapters which seemed more blockbuster than literary but overall I did really enjoy the raw emotion being poured onto the pages.” – Rachel
The mayor of a small NZ town recalls his successes and failures in the lead up to an election and school reunion.
✚ “Pearly was such a recognisable character it was disarming. We all know a Pearly – a Boomer with such a strong sense of self-assurance and entitlement that Gen Xs and the rest are almost envious.
“Pearly’s a wholly unlikeable man whose unshakeable confidence causes him to act in ways that are morally questionable at best and criminal at worst. Nevertheless he has risen to small-town South Island fame as the local mayor. Along the way the small insights he has into his behaviour are never enough to redeem himself to the reader.
“While I detested Pearly Gates the character I absolutely loved Pearly Gates the novel. On one page I would be judging him from a moral high ground and on the next I would realise with considerable discomfort that I have a bit of Pearly in me. As benevolent and kind as I think I am, of course I also act in complete self-interest sometimes (although hopefully not dropping to Pearly’s low standards).
“The level of introspection this novel engendered along with the awful self-realisation was something else.” – Suzy
✚ “Anyone who reads Pearly Gates will know someone who slightly resembles the main character, Pearly Gates. That air of importance that some think comes as a given with age; the denial of the fragility of life. For this part I think the novel was well written and relevant.
“However I found there was a lack of plot. A nearing-old man meanders through the pages detailing his real estate deals, his mayoral & school reunion committee obligations, his opinions of various people and his memories of his glory days as a young rugby player destined for the All Blacks. I was waiting for a dramatic event to break the monotony of his life, but the monotony of his life is it. There were a couple of interesting events that showcased Pearly’s moral decline which I thought would lead to something bigger but, actually, the characterisation of Pearly is the main event.
“All in all, I appreciate the skill involved in the construction of Pearly but the book did not excite me.” – Rachel
Penguin Random House
A suicidal man visits his family in California before deciding his fate.
✚ “My previous experience of David Vann was of the book Goat Mountain, which both freaked me out and captivated me. I wanted to recommend it to all and sundry, but knew the content wasn’t all and sundry’s cup of tea. Anyway, it was amazing and I totally rated Vann as a writer as a result. I was surprised to then see him on the Ockham shortlist for Halibut On The Moon as I thought he was an American. Turns out he is an American-cum-NZer and has been here since 2003. This is great news as the chances of me running into him on the street are now greatly increased.
“So, it is probably no surprise that I adored Halibut On The Moon. A 39-year Alaskan man named Jim is on the verge of suicide, telling everyone of his plans on a visit to his brother and family in California. His search for sense amongst the places and people that ground him is an achingly moving portrayal of a desperate and hollow man, and yes Jim’s character is dark but his reckless antics are also sadly comic, making this a roller coaster ride of emotion. I really felt for his brother Gary, who put up with so much in his bid to be Jim’s saviour.
“Ultimately it is a story about roads travelled and the search for redemption. There is more I want to say but won’t for fear of providing spoilers to Vann virgins. All I can say is Vann had a traumatic history that provides much fodder for his story writing. Halibut On The Moon is an excellent novel and I recommend both this and Goat Mountain. Right, now I’m off to read everything else he has ever written!” – Rachel
✚ “This book was a big literary punch in the face. I enjoyed about a quarter of it, maybe less, but after I had finished it I processed it a bit more and was really in awe of the author and what he’d done. Learning afterwards about the autobiographical nature of the story turned the novel from ‘moving’ to ‘gut wrenching’.
“I would struggle to recommend this book as a great read, but maybe if I wasn’t trying to get through it during a 6 week (and counting) lockdown I might have embraced it a bit more. It has an air of ‘prize winner’ about it and I can’t wait to find out what the Ockham judges think.” – Suzy
A surgeon is investigated after the death of a patient.
✚ “I have to preface this by saying it’s been at least six months since I read A Mistake. I bought it after reading numerous positive reviews. I remember the feelings of hope, deep unease and sadness while reading it and all this time later I honestly feel ill as I recall various parts of the plot (and I’m not referring to any of the medical procedures).
✚ “In the book a doctor is accused of mis-adventure after a patient dies. The ensuing investigations are a compelling analysis of accountability in a human-risk and human-fault laden aspect of life. The work ethic of surgeon Liz Taylor and her personal life are examined and played off against each other nicely. She is a professional surgeon with an extraordinary reputation, though her personal life was slightly chaotic. This created an interesting character and a compelling plot, but I did feel that Liz was stereotyped to disprove a stereotype, ie because she was a woman she had to be not a good but a phenomenal surgeon, and, also because she was a woman, she had to be a little bit neurotic. Maybe I’m overthinking it … anyway it didn’t prevent me from enjoying the story of her troubled personal life nor appreciating the questions Shuker raises about culpability in the medical world.” – Rachel
Chosen by Sonya
A 16-year-old fundamentalist Mormon defies her family by getting herself educated.
✚ “Educated is the memoir of a girl who flees her fundamentalist Mormon family in lieu of an education.
“Tara Westover’s Idaho parents were suspicious of everyone and hid their family away from reality, prepping for the end of days and following their father’s doctrines. The children were not schooled, did not see doctors and four of them were not issued with birth certificates.
“Not only are Tara’s family religious fanatics, they are also cruel, and Tara, as the youngest, is subjected to all sorts of crazy ideas, and abuse, both physical and psychological. The story is truely astounding and almost unbelievable.
“To be honest when we discussed the book there was a consensus of slight disbelief. Not only did so many terrible things happen (repetition of preventable accidents) but the thematic construction of the book is perfect, like it couldn’t have been planned better if it was fiction. (A son’s minor burn foreshadows the father explosive burn injury years later; the father stock piles gold and later in the book a university professor compares Tara to gold …)
‘You are not fool’s gold, shining only under a particular light. Whomever you become, whatever you make yourself into, that is who you always were. It was always in you. Not in Cambridge. In you. You are gold. And returning to BYU, or even to that mountain you came from, will not change who you are. It may change how others see you, it may even change how you see yourself—even gold appears dull in some lighting—but that is the illusion. And it always was.’
Research shows the parents are still alive and did say through attorneys that the book should be taken with a grain of salt. Some of her brothers have also taken to their keyboards to offer their takes of the book, including Tyler who wrote the following review on Good Reads.
“But whatever the case, memoir, fiction, fictionalised truth, the book is one of those unputdownable memoirs that gives you an insight into the lives of the other side (the really other side). And it proves the point that whatever your adversity getting yourself educated is the first step to a better future.
“At university Tara studied the social implications of fundamentalist religion as a result of her upbringing and I’m sure this book will give those who have always wondered far more insight into what some people endure and how services can and should assist them.
“It’s a book you want want to devour in one sitting, and as such is recommended by us all.”
Chosen by Jo
A romantic, 1960s coming-of-age story recaptures a young man’s first, hopeless, and heroic love.
✚ “Norwegian Wood is the book that made Haruki Murakami famous. Which some would say is surprising considering it is a move away from his magical realism tendencies and into a more realistic genre. However on closer inspection, much of what makes a book Murakamiesque is still apparent.
“In the book a young Japanese man Toru Watanabe hears the Beatles song Norwegian Wood and recalls a time of his life spent with several interesting characters, in particular a troubled girlfriend.
“Toru and several of his friends have experiences with death and grief and one such acquaintence ends up in a mental institution located deep in the snowy woods. This examination of loss, particularly suicide, does not attempt to scare the reader into flinching at mention of the D word, but rather, reminds us that death is not the opposite to life, it is a part of life.
“It is said that the popularity of this ’80s book amongst young adults was its because of its insights into death, loss and grief, something that at the time was lacking from youth culture. And it certainly does provide death with a normality, so that the death of a character is not the shocking plot reveal that it would be in many novels.
Despite your best efforts, people are going to be hurt when it’s time for them to be hurt.
“The copious references to sex and its inferences are notable. Our discussions on this aspect gravitated around a number of factors. One of which was love transcends sex. And that sex can be enjoyed without emotional buy-in. Which was a refreshing take on the subject. However we did question the representation of female characters. They were often weak and fallible with a damsel-in-distress demeanour, requiring saving by men. Plus also there is an acknowledgement that sometimes women are taken advantage of, with one particularly disturbing scene.
“We also saw some of the sex as an energy, a life force that needs to be shared between someone full of vitality and a partner on the verge of giving up. It is a necessity rather than gratuitous.
“All in all it is a book that is never dull, with multiple stories within stories to really bring the characters to life. It was one that was enjoyed by all the free rangers.”
A novel must contain many things to hold the reader’s attention: compelling plot, relatable characters and distinct settings. But another, sometimes underrated, feature is narrative direction. It can be overstated for purpose, or discreet so as not to be obtrusive, but narration is usually a complex feature worth investigation.
Each of our bookclub meets has a chair, who, like a narrator, engages the readers and steers them through investigation of their chosen book – its construction, its relevance, its critical review – for a fuller understanding of the work.
After a year of particularly attention-grabbing books, when we each had much to say and much to question, we are more appreciative of this direction; we have discovered it is more important than ever to focus our discussions. It is easy to react and to meander with our interpretations, but to retain focus and direction is to fully examine a topic or aspect that may influence a later conversation.
The Man Who Saw Everything – Deborah Levy
Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami
Educated – Tara Westover
Normal People – Sally Rooney
American Dirt – Jeanine Cummins
Rules of Civility – Amor Towles
Born A Crime – Trevor Noah
Looking back over our reading list in 2019, it’s easy to see how overcoming adversity dominated the featured titles.
From North Korean military control, to South African apartheid, from accidental shootings and drug fuelled poverty, to orphaned children and World War II life, this reading schedule was certainly adrenalin packed!
Yet misery or distress was not the overwhelming forethought when considering the booklist at our end-of-year dinner at Harbour Light Bistro. Rather it was the sense of appreciation for a life lived or a journey still to come that inspired the freerangers to name this list a tremendous one.
It was fair to say there were a number of shocking moments to discuss, but the two that remained with us (spoiler alert) were two rapes, one in A Clockwork Orange, and the other in Disgrace. Plus we were all shocked to read insights into North Korean life in The Orphan Master’s Son. Also troubling to learn was that two endings exist to A Clockwork Orange. Discovering that some of us obtained copies with one ending and some the other caused all sorts of chaos with our feelings about the book!
At the other extreme there were many couplings that filled us with joy, mostly Leisel and Rudy in The Book Thief and Simon and Robert in The Immortalists. And in a year of go-getter characters, we agreed that Arthur Less in Less was boring and lifeless and while we appreciate this was the intention, he remained uninspiring to us.
But all in all we loved the books so much it was the first year we agreed upon a three-tier favourites list, so difficult was it to choose only a runner up and a bestie!
Most memorable setting:
Jo: Parchment Prison in Sing Unburied Sing
Rachel: North Korea in The Orphan Master’s Son
Becks: Cat lady’s bedroom in A Clockwork Orange
Sonya: The writer’s retreat in Less
Jodie: The marsh in When The Crawdads Sing
Jo: David Lurie in Disgrace
Rachel: Alex in A Clockwork Orange
Becks: Alex in A Clockwork Orange
Sonya: Pak Jun Do in The Orphan Master’s Son
Jodie: Pak Jun Do in The Orphan Master’s Son
2nd runner up best book:
Rachel: The Orphan Master’s Son
Becks: The Immortalists
Sonya: Sing Unburied Sing
Jodie: The Orphan Master’s Son
1st runner up best book:
Jo: The Orphan Master’s Son
Becks: When The Crawdads Sing
Sonya: The Book Thief
Book of the year:
Jo: The Book Thief
Rachel: A Clockwork Orange
Becks: A Clockwork Orange
Sonya: The Orphan Master’s Son
Jodie: Sing Unburied Sing