Better The Blood – Michael Bennett


● At first I was surprised to hear a crime story had secured a place on the shortlist over literary greats like Lloyd Jones and Vincent O’Sullivan. But who’s to say genre fiction doesn’t deserve a place on literary prize lists. Especially when, like Better The Blood, it has more substance than your average detective novel.

It presents a modern day killer who is undertaking utu, avenging past atrocities against Māori. I found the historical information interesting and was provoked into thought by the commentary on how we view privilege and what our modern day responsibilities are, not to exact retribution for past wrongs but to re-establish balance.

However, it was disappointing this balance wasn’t evident in the presentation of the book. The important historical aspect and the detective plot were out of symmetry. I was also let down by the footnotes, where everyday Māori words like iwi and whanau were explained. It has been 50 years since Patricia Grace first refused such translations in her novels so this feels like a step backwards. Perhaps the book has an international intent but in my opinion it was obvious what the words meant from their context and surely the book’s biggest audience was always going to be New Zealanders.

Overall, I can see why it was included on the shortlist and it will probably be widely read, but I don’t think it will or should take home the top prize.

For the Maori cops it was a nightmare. You learn your whole life to treat your elders with respect, to give others the dignity they deserve, to come to resolution through words, the way of the marae. Then you wake up one morning, you pull on your uniform … and that morning you realise your history, your background, the things you got taught on marae, none of that matters. You’re a person with a uniform. And a truncheon. That’s all you are.

● This didn’t necessarily feel like a typical Ockham novel, but once I’d surrendered to Better The Blood being a detective/crime story I was in. And as the story progressed it became clear it was so much more than just that.

How on earth did Michael Bennett so sensitively weave the devastating effects of colonialism with a rip-roaring story – I feel like it could have gone so wrong. I have read novels where being educated by the author within fiction felt clunky and also like I was being lectured to (sorry but I’m looking at you Anuk Arudpragasam), however it was done very naturally in Better The Blood.

The only thing that felt a bit clunky was the English translations for all Māori words. After recently reading Pōtiki and Patricia Grace’s refusal to do this, I kind of wish Michael Bennett had done the same.


Published 2023
325 pages
Simon & Schulster

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