2020 NZ Book Awards

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!”

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