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.”
Chosen by Jo
A disillusioned woman in her 70s writes on the back of envelopes about her life, dedicating her story to all the women who have had enough.
⫸ “Anakana Schofield was quoted as saying literature does not exist only to provide pleasure. It should also ‘challenge and perturb us.’
“Both sentiments would be accurate of how the Free-Rangers felt about this novel. We all admitted to struggling through the initial pages, wondering where the repetitive, distracted and sometimes vague mental wanderings were going. But at some point things clicked into place and the challenge of reading Bina became more a pleasure.
“Bina is a character who featured in Schofield’s debut Malarkey as an old woman attacking a plane with a hammer during a protest. She had such presence Schofield decided to give her her own platform.
My name is Bina and I’m a very busy woman. That’s Bye-na, not Beena. I don’t know who Beena is but I expect she’s having a happy life. I don’t know who you are, or the state of your life. But if you’ve come all this way here to listen to me, your life will undoubtedly get worse. I’m here to warn you …”
“As she scribbles poetic warnings on the back of till receipts and used envelopes, Bina tackles big topics such as grief, frustration, anger, friendship and womanhood. It will take time to work everything out, though. Who exactly is Eddie; why are activists picketing outside her home; why is her back yard full of medical waste; why are the police investigating her over the death of her best friend Philomena.”
“You could say the novel is a kind of confessional for Bina, though she does admit: “if you write out everything you think they’ll think it’s everything you did, rather than everything you thought about doing.”
⫸ “Bina’s musings were frustrating. However, that confusion kept me guessing and therefore invested in the story. Plus there was a great sense of satisfaction once I’d worked out her meaning or connected the plot dots. After the final page there were still questions left unanswered, which can sometimes be disappointing, but it does also lead to further pondering which is always a sign to me that I’ve read something thought provoking and worthwhile.” – Jo
⫸ “Bina is a strong, outspoken woman who has lived life and taken action where she felt necessary. I liked her a lot. Though it took me a while to get to know her as her opinions and warnings are sometimes vague, and rambling. But she is a 74 year old woman so I’ll forgive her that. Bina is a quick book to read but attention to detail is required for maximum enjoyment. I would recommend it to those who enjoy something outside of the box.” – Rachel
⫸ “I initially struggled with Bina as I enjoy a more plot driven storyline. However, the structure of the novel was unique and intrigued me which gave me the motivation to press on. I appreciated the combination of wittiness and sadness, which helped build a more complete picture of Bina. I would recommend this novel for its thought-provoking qualities, but word of warning, you will be left pondering it for days after you have finished.” – Jodie
Chosen by Jodie
A group of Greek mythology students attempt to experience a higher level of being and in doing so carry out an evil act.
⫸ “There were many reasons why the The Secret History was such a hit with us all in the Free-Range Bookclub. It was easy to admit we were enthralled, but like the characters, we had to come together and bond over our thoughts to completely understand our visceral responses.
“In the book, a group of New England college undergraduates who study Greek form a veiled friendship that excludes many. Their God-like opinions of themselves, and their obsession with experiencing an alternative realm of being sees things take a turn for the worse.
“It’s a very Greek idea, and a very profound one. Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it. And what could be more terrifying and beautiful, to souls like the Greeks or our own, than to lose control completely? To throw off the chains of being for an instant, to shatter the accident of our mortal selves?
“Donna Tartt has ensured there is one privileged person who is admitted to this private sect however, and that is you, the reader. The admission of murder in the opening pages, and even the title, make us complicit in the crime. To continue is to knowingly be involved. But then, there is a perverse pleasure in being admitted to this intoxicating group and a part of the secret.
“Richard, the narrator, is open and honest from the outset and it’s hard to dislike him, nor any of the characters, despite their immoral and snobbish demeanours. Richard begins as the outsider, arriving at Hampden without friends or familial support, but looking for a better life, to “fabricate a new and far more satisfying history”. He is drawn to the bunch of conceited and clever Greek students, focused on becoming one of them, and fulfulling his hopes and dreams through them. He narrates the story to us like we are friends, chatting about friends.
“With the biggest of the plot drivers revealed in the opening sentences, it would be easy to think there is little left to get the heart racing. However, Tartt deals in angst instead, detailing how and why the murder happened, with many interesting character developments and surprises thrown in for the later.
“There was a general consensus of delight for us all after reading The Secret History. We agreed it was difficult to put down. For it was continually astounding and enthralling. It was delicious and disgusting. And it challenges you all along the way to be party to or to turn your back on their deviancies. A book we all highly recommend.
Acknowledgements ensure influences to the creation of a notable thing are credited. For creative imaginations are enabled and influenced by many things: people, places and events. When book reading, it is interesting to discover where the author found inspiration.
In setting our new reading schedule, we have a few acknowledgments of our own. Beginning with the fact that 2020 was a tough year and that many are glad to see the back of it. We acknowledge the impact that year is already forecast to have on 2021 and wonder what may prevail.
We recognise that recent and current events have impacted our book choices. On the list are many new and recent releases with a high level of relevancy to changing times. Plus there’s a good percentage of dystopian themed novels talking about the “what ifs” that are eerily starting to reflect in our everyday lives. We’re even re-reading Nineteen Eighty Four, for what book deals more effectively with global disaster and lost freedoms?
We’d also like to make another acknowledgement, and that’s to one of our bookclubbers Sonya who is departing book club to ensure all other parts of her busy life are not neglected. We will miss the literary musings and fashion chat, Sonya!
The books we have chosen for 2021 are:
The Secret History – Donna Tartt
Bina: A Novel In Warnings – Anakana Schofield
The Harpy – Megan Hunter
Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell
The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
Summerwater – Sarah Moss
Death In Her Hands – Otessa Moshfegh
The Blue Flower – Penelope Fitzgerald
Blue Ticket – Sophie MacIntosh
Sisters – Daisy Johnson
At our end of year bookclub we dined at the Boat Shed Cafe in Nelson and acknowledged how lucky we were to be able to do so. While we recalled our bookclubs hosted by Zoom and philosophised about the state of the world, we also expressed our gratitude in having books to entertain and to distract us; and we reiterated how lucky we are to live in New Zealand where Covid-19 was far less threatening than in other nations and now is basically non-existent. To our readers around the world who are still experiencing the effects of the pandemic we offer our thoughts and aroha and hope that our mental wanderings might offer you some entertainment and distraction, just for a moment.
It was a year of emotive readings, in which, weirdly, the books did mimic the uncertainty of world events. Immigration crises, alternative realities in which humanity was at risk, and tales of lost family members and hardship abounded. The use of unnamed or faceless characters featured several times, allowing us, the reader, to imagine ourselves in the predicament of the characters, and therefore creating a much greater emotional tie to the events.
In analysing the year there were certainly some common thoughts and opinions voiced:
Here are some of our other thoughts:
Sonya: The old man – The Memory Police
Jo: Katy – Rules of Civility
Rachel: Saul Adler – The Man Who Saw Everything
Becks: Girl – Lost Children Archive
Jodie: Katy – Rules of Civility
Most memorable setting:
Sonya: The ghetto – Driving to Treblinka
Jo: The house – Memory Police
Rachel: 1930s New York – Rules of Civility
Becks: Zebra Crossing – The Man Who Saw Everything
Jodie: The scrap yard – Educated
Best revelation (spoiler alert):
Sonya: There was only one accident – The Man Who Saw Everything
Jo & Jodie: How intense the hatred of Jews was – Driving to Treblinka
Rachel: The Rules of Civility was a real document – Rules of Civility
Becks: The real life controversy around the publication of American Dirt
Runner up best book:
Sonya: Lost Children Archive
Jo: Rules of Civility
Rachel: Rules of Civility
Becks: Normal People
Jodie: Norwegian Wood
Book of the year:
Sonya: The Memory Police
Jo: Driving To Treblinka
Rachel: Lost Children Archive
Becks: Lost Children Archive
Jodie: Rules of Civility
Chosen by Becks
A family’s road trip across America collides with an immigration crisis at the southwestern border.
✚ “Lost Children Archive is not purely about immigrants crossing borders. More, it reflects on the histories of immigrants that have been lost by society’s refusal to embrace cultural uniqueness.
Our mothers teach us to speak, and the world teaches us to shut up.
“To highlight her point, Luiselli cleverly constructs her book with a narrative that itself sometimes captures events and sometimes allows them to fade into meaninglessness.
“The unnamed parents capture sounds for a living and are headed cross country on a road trip with their two children (referred to as boy and girl), each working a different soundscape project.
“The sounds captured, the waning silences, the awkward interactions amongst the family members and their varying memories of the same experience all demonstrate how difficult it is to tell a story from one person’s perspective or with only one mode of language. Ultimately the narrative structure suggests an inventoried collection of fragments and experiences is the only way to accurately represent a moment in time .
“To showcase this, the story changes narrators several times. Ma recalls the journey in an intellectual, emotional and overthinking way; boy challenges her assertions, recalling the same events in a logical, realist manner; whereas girl remembers the entire trip as a series of sounds. The father, true to his self-absorbed characterisation, does not contribute to the narrative.
“However, Luiselli wants us to know that no matter how many fragments the mother collects, no matter how many ways in which she tries to tell the stories, it is the political systems that will win: immigrants will be treated with disdain, their stories, histories and beliefs will not be valued nor kept. Historical narratives must be in the hands of many, she intones, not just of a few select powers.
The book also offers a juxtaposition between creating new histories and relying on existing texts, showing how the past and present are constantly intersecting and can provide a muddling effect to the remembered truth of history.
Conversations, in a family, become linguistic archaeology. They build the world we share, layer it in a palimpsest, give meaning to our present and future. The question is, when, in the future, we dig into our intimate archive, replay our family tape, will it amount to a story? A soundscape?
✚ “I have both read and listened to this book, and as a story about sounds, both offer a unique perspective. I loved this multi-dimensionality, especially as the book is about how accurate histories should be captured in many different formats. Every voice is deserving in the documentation of history and the author makes this evident.
“I particularly loved girl’s retelling of their trip as a series of echoes in the Audible book. It is so eerie, and stimulates a roller coaster of emotion, like reliving the entire book again in condensed format.
“The novel’s language is slick and considered. I found myself often pausing to either marvel over beautiful sentences or to consider challenges to conventional ideas and constructs. I absolutely loved Lost Children Archive and have thought about it a lot since first reading it.” – Rachel
✚ “I can’t say I really enjoyed the book all that much.This was primarily due to the mother’s narrative which was too pretentious and overwrought for me. I much preferred the son’s logical narration style but by the time this was introduced, it was unable to recover my interest in the story.
“My view of the novel vastly improved following the bookclub research, when the reason for all of the different perspectives became apparent. I did enjoy the educational aspect in regards to learning about the Mexican people’s awful journeys and the risks they take to cross the US border. The portrayal of the horrible consequences to immigrants’ lives but also to their histories was extremely moving.” – Jo
✚ “Lost Children Archive was my runner up book of 2020, for a mixed bag of reasons, and not because it was a ‘perfect’ novel for me. In fact, there were a few things I didn’t really like about it. Truth be told the weightiness of the mother’s narration was at times too much, too contrived. I wanted reprieve from constant metaphors and analogies and double meanings. And I didn’t like the perfect plot, which felt to me like one driven by the need for metaphors, analogies, and double meanings.
“But at the same time, I was blown away by how cleverly and beautifully the book was written. The lost children touched me, moved me. The lost stories, blankness, emptiness and the sense of touching a void, were all feelings I experienced whilst reading this book. The deep, deep sadness and loss, the pain of parent separated from child, or the death of a child, a lost child. The refreshing simplicity of the boys narrative, in contrast with the mothers? That was genius. A beautiful book”. – Sonya
Knopf Publishing Group
It’s an understatement to say 2020 is a bit of a strange year! Covid-19 and the resulting politics around controlling it both unites and divides us. While some people reach out to neighbours, colleagues, families for support, some feel their ‘otherness’ and loneliness more distinctly than ever. It is a trying time for many unsure of how they fit in.
While this year’s published books do not yet have Covid storylines (am sure we’ll see those soon) the Booker shortlisters do portray this sense of otherness, plus a hopefulness for the future. Marginalised people, poverty stricken families, war-affected communities and those who consider themselves outsiders feature strongly in this year’s shortlist.
For example: This Mournable Body features a woman stuck between past and present, attempting to rebuild her life in post-colonial Zimbabwe; Shuggie Bain‘s eponymous protagonist is a young gay man in a working class Glaswegian tenement struggling for acceptance; Hirut is a female warrior in The Shadow King, fighting amongst men; Wallace is a black, gay biochemist struggling for acceptance at an academic level in Real Life; Burnt Sugar tells the story of a young girl brought up in a commune and on the streets now trying to care for her dementia-ridden mother; The New Wilderness features a number of outsiders trying to adapt in a new environment on a dying planet.
But rather than depict them as outsiders, the formidable writing styles of these authors sees these protagonists portrayed as real people. Most are not over wrought, or over written, nor have moralistic opinions to shove down our throats. We appreciate that this group of authors let their characters simply tell their incredible stories then leave it up to us, the reader, to develop our own opinions on how this represents the real world, how it affects or involves us and what, if any, actions we feel obliged to take.
As Suzy wondered in one of her reviews, when have we “othered” people without realising? Each of these stories provides so much food for thought about how we interact with people and how our interactions can affect those people, and how small adaptions to our behaviours can have the largest of effects.
We both agree that while initially the list was a surprise, it ended up being a year where most nominees evoked a real sense of the world.
I say most because there is one title we feel does not fit. The New Wilderness is topical, we acknowledge that, but its characters who feel like characters and the lack of reason in its plot works against it. We struggle to see how it could have been shortlisted amongst these other developed titles. Therefore, it is out of the running for us. (Hilary Mantel must be wondering even more so how she was left off this list.)
As we lounge about in our rented Thorndon villa in Wellington, we agree we’d like to pick multiple winners. However, unlike the Booker judges of 2019 we are prepared to make a tough call. Here are our thoughts:
This Mournable Body: a synchronised depiction of a country and its people learning to adapt to colonisation and independence, without judgment of the mistakes they make along the way and ending with opportunities not results
Shuggie Bain: a true representation of alcoholism, poverty and sexuality on a struggling Glaswegian family without pointing any fingers of blame nor nicely sewing up the conclusions
The Shadow King: a factually based retelling of a time when women were warriors but still people with successes and failings, a duty of care for those around them and a blood thirsty desire to live
Burnt Sugar: a study of human nature and mother-daughter relationships where resentfulness and co-dependence mar an ability to see clearly, and where the outcome is the best that can be hoped for
Real Life: a very real account of the lives of marginalised peoples, told in a matter-of-fact manner without judgement or sentimentality
So which comes out on top for each of us?
Suzy chose The Shadow King. “This novel somehow transported me from the rural Waikato to 1930s Ethiopia with complete ease! I was absolutely drawn in to The Shadow King and relished reading a book with a storyline unlike anything I’d come across before. Amazingly compelling and fresh writing – I loved it.”
Rachel chose Burnt Sugar. “I loved the ever-evolving relationship between Tara and Antara – their love for one another, mixed with their mutual contempt was very convincing. The slow drip feed of their toxic past added to the intrigue plus there was a nice little plot twist. Slow-burning, fictional studies of human nature are definitely my type of book.”
Rachel (favourites in order 1-6)
Burnt Sugar – Anvi Doshi
The Shadow King – Maaza Mengiste
Real Life – Brandon Taylor
This Mournable Body – Tsitsi Dangarembga
Shuggie Bain – Douglas Stuart
The New Wilderness – Diane Cook
Suzy (favourites in order 1-6)
The Shadow King – Maaza Mengiste
Shuggie Bain – Douglas Stuart
Real Life – Brandon Taylor & Burnt Sugar – Anvi Doshi
This Mournable Body – Tsitsi Dangarembga
The New Wilderness – Diane Cook