2023 – NZ Book Awards

What is the job of fiction? To entertain? To educate? To document? To insert the reader into an unexpected place or mindset so they can see the world through another lens? The authors on this year’s shortlist took their roles to the next level, with the four books encompassing all of these criteria. It appears that to have the edge in 2023 it is not enough to just write something of interest and write well, the work must be important too, it should raise issues of note to New Zealanders and it should make us wonder: what is my understanding of this, and what is my moral responsibility in relation to this?

In Better The Blood a traditional detective story is interspersed with historical fact about past wrongs enacted on Māori and how a descendant of such a person now wishes to undertake utu to balance the playing field. It covers off colonisation, the role of Māori in the police force, the abuse of the Treaty of Waitangi, modern day protests over land, misogyny towards women, leniency of the courts towards white offenders …. heavy stuff but all merged into a real page turner of a plot.

Kāwai takes us back to 1734 and introduces Kaitanga, a newly born chief-to-be and details his life into young adulthood. It is a no holds barred look at the life Māori led prior to colonisation, including tribal warfare, slavery and cannibalism, but also the bonds and treaties made between tribes, the processes they had for foraging, cooking, building, marriage and training for warfare. Again a lot of information, historically accurate, but with a fantastic plot and loveable characters.

The Axeman’s Carnival seems like a more lively and less intense read, with a talking magpie as its narrator and funny social media content as a central plot driver. However, it too references colonisation, with one thread detailing how Tama’s sister is dismayed that he has given up on his bird family, their traditions and culture, instead taking up with the humans, speaking their language, eating their tasteless food and mimicking them. The book also broaches another important topic, domestic violence and the role of women.

Mrs Jewell & The Wreck Of The General Grant is the only shortlister to not tackle colonisation, however as a take on a real event Cristina Sanders has taken it upon herself to be historically accurate and to give the reader a real experience as if shipwrecked themselves. What’s more she has tackled the incomplete documentation of history and given a voice to someone who was not granted one at the time, the only female amongst the survivors.

There were some fine books on the longlist that did not make the cut. Especially notable omissions were stalwarts of the New Zealand literary world, Lloyd Jones and Vincent O’Sullivan, alongside some fresh new voices. Without having read them all we cannot say, but perhaps they did not tackle the big issues like these four have, without losing those all so important criteria of readability and entertainment. Taking on these topics does lend itself towards stories of violence, and there is a lot of violence amongst the shortlisters. However each author has instilled equal measures of hope, especially Better The Blood which in its final pages speaks of balance and restoring community without resorting to violence any longer.

Nā te ahi ka tahuna he ahi anō. Violence only bring more violence. Pain brings more pain. Māori must continue to fight. We were born brown and screaming. We must stand together and fight. Until the scars of two hundred years are truly headed. Until thing truly change. Not by making new wounds. Not by blood. We will fight with words. With love. With light. And we will win.

Better The Blood by Michael Bennett

● I felt very conflicted after reading the shortlist, with the book (and the magpie) that I initially thought would hands-down win being unexpectedly relegated into my fourth place. The enormity of Kāwai and what Dr Soutar has achieved with his spectacular addition to Aotearoa’s literature is so significant that I believe it’s completely deserving of winning the Ockham’s Acorn prize. I can’t wait to read the next part of this trilogy.

I am still not 100% sure who I think should be sitting at second place, with part of my uncertainty being related to my unfamiliarity with the crime genre. I think the way Michael Bennett so seamlessly wove in the impacts of colonialism with a highly readable mystery nudges it slightly above Mrs Jewell and the Wreck of the General Grant, but I still think so much about Mrs Jewell. Even though I don’t think Mrs Jewell will win, it’s the book that has left the most lasting impact on me. – Suzy

●  Considering this year’s shortlisters individually or as a collective makes me feel differently about them. For example The Axeman’s Carnival is a fantastic book, loved by all in our bookclub, but when put into battle with the other three, it starts to pack less punch. Better The Blood was a real page turner too, but I wondered about the meshing of the detective genre with serious New Zealand issues. But after reading the others I see that this powerfulness is where the Kiwi literature landscape is at the moment, and it gained more clout in my mind. I said in my previous review that I didn’t think Better The Blood should or will win, but I’m beginning to think it could and I don’t think I’d be unhappy if it did. It delivers a sign of our times.

Mrs Jewell & The Wreck of the General Grant was my favourite read. I couldn’t put it down. Mrs Jewell’s voice was authentic and I got gold fever myself, reading about the fortunes and misfortunes of the bunch of castaways. She has documented something important, and added to history which is no mean feat. But Kāwai is my pick for the win. Dr Soutar is a historian and I appreciate immensely his dedication to creating something probably more historically accurate than most other books of this type. His move into fictional writing is impressive too, the characters are distinct, I understood their emotions and actions, and I cared for them all. – Rachel

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