Four of our best-known novelists – whose novels, appropriately for our times, explore what it means to tell the truth – are in the running for the country’s richest fiction writing prize with today’s Ockham New Zealand Book Awards finalist announcement
The Cage by Lloyd Jones, This Mortal Boy by Fiona Kidman, All This By Chance by Vincent O’Sullivan, and The New Ships by Kate Duignan are shortlisted for the $53,000 Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize.
“They stood out for their ability to explore personal memory and collective mediation of the truth in new and provocative ways that have a lasting impact on the reader,” says the Fiction category convenor of judges Sally Blundell.
Award-winning New York-based novelist Joseph O'Neill will assist the three New Zealand judges to select this year’s Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize winner.
Today’s announcement includes two major new Awards’ sponsors. Mitochondrial science company MitoQ will sponsor the four Best First Book awards, and arts enthusiasts and philanthropists Mary and Peter Biggs will support the Poetry category.
MitoQ’s chief marketing officer John Marshall says that as one of New Zealand’s newest success stories, it is their pleasure to help emerging writers further enrich the country’s literature.
Peter Biggs says that with poetry undergoing a wonderful resurgence in our country over the last few years, it struck him as strange that the Award for Poetry was unsupported.
“We are thrilled to be involved and hope that the Award continues to recognise poetry’s – and the poet’s – vital role to, as Salman Rushdie says, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep.”
The finalists in the Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry are Are Friends Electric? by Helen Heath; There's No Place Like the Internet in Springtime by Erik Kennedy; The Facts by Therese Lloyd and Poūkahangatus by Tayi Tibble.
“The poetry collections on this year’s shortlist are marked by a striking diversity of approaches to the lyric poem, but all show an ambitious and engaging interest in experimenting with narrative, form, structure and voice without sacrificing emotional resonance,” says this year’s Poetry category convenor of judges Bryan Walpert.
The Royal Society Te Apārangi Award for General Non-Fiction finalists are New York Times best-selling author and academic Joanne Drayton for Hudson & Halls: The Food of Love; lauded and much-loved writer Maurice Gee for Memory Pieces; debut author Chessie Henry for We Can Make A Life, and renowned editor and writer Anna Rogers for With Them Through Hell: New Zealand Medical Services in the First World War.
“We were excited by the fresh and diverse perspectives, new voices, and generous writing reflected in the shortlist, as well as by the appeal and attractiveness of the books themselves,” says General Non-Fiction category convenor of judges Angela Wanhalla.
In the Illustrated Non-Fiction category, the four finalists are: Fight for the Forests: The Pivotal Campaigns that Saved New Zealand's Native Forests by conservationist and journalist Paul Bensemann; Wanted: The Search for the Modernist Murals of E. Mervyn Taylor edited by investigative artist and researcher Bronwyn Holloway-Smith; Tatau: A History of Sāmoan Tattooing by senior curator Sean Mallon with anthropologist Sébastien Galliot, and Birdstories: A History of the Birds of New Zealand by writer, publisher and environmentalist Geoff Norman.
Illustrated Non-Fiction category convenor Douglas Lloyd-Jenkins says the judges were thrilled with the quality and ambition of the short-listed books, all of which clearly stood out from the rest.
New Zealand Book Awards trustee Jenna Todd says the Ockham’s shortlist is clear evidence of the vitality of New Zealand literature.
“Not only does the shortlist feature some of our best known writers - those with long and illustrious careers - but it also includes newcomers writing out of deep passion and engagement. These 16 books deepen the public discourse on a range of issues and the particular genius of each of their writers lifts them to an emotional plane at which they reward and endure for their readers,” says Ms Todd.
ACORN FOUNDATION FICTION PRIZE
The New Ships
The New Ships moves deftly back and forth in time and place as Peter Collie, his life eroding after the loss of his wife, tries to make sense of the past and find a way forward. With ageing parents, a flailing relationship with his son, and a past tragedy, the strata of life and family are excavated and entwined with ideas of art and literature to produce an intriguing and elegantly written novel with a wide cast of memorable characters and not a word out of place.
Lloyd Jones has delivered a dark but clear-eyed parable of who and what we become when supposedly decent societies master the art of ‘othering’. The narrator’s intense specificity in detailing the two captive strangers’ processes and behaviours, without any seeming emotional context, allows the book to become quietly horrific, the banality of its evil played out as studious observation. It is a courageous book in its insistence upon not directly engaging with its seeming lack of humanity. But the cumulative effect is that its chilling images and their implications do just that.
This Mortal Boy
Spare, unsentimental and unforgettable, This Mortal Boy is a masterful recreation of the events leading up to the real-life hanging of “jukebox killer” Albert Lawrence (Paddy) Black at Mount Eden prison in 1955. With seemingly effortless proficiency, Kidman creates an intensely human and believable story as she positions Paddy, newly arrived from Ireland, within the moral panic of post-war New Zealand, the restless vulnerability of Auckland’s teen culture and the damning preconceptions of the legal profession, all leading to the appalling inevitability of his death.
All This by Chance
All This by Chance is a remarkably immersive three-generational family saga revealing the persistence of a wartime past on our personal histories and the undeniability of traumatic memory. In rich, often intense prose Vincent O’Sullivan weaves the dramatic tension of his story through time and place, from a German concentration camp and post-war London to Italy, Greece, Africa and New Zealand, all the while holding his characters to the unbreakable thread that binds them to the impossible demands of the Holocaust.
MARY AND PETER BIGGS AWARD FOR POETRY
Are Friends Electric?
Helen Heath’s collection, by turns thoughtful and moving, asks how the material world, including technology, might mediate – or replace – human relationships. The experimental first half uses found poems to engage how artifacts – sex dolls, buildings – become objects of human passion. The elegiac second half offers a touching speculative narrative: a woman embeds her deceased partner’s personality into software to avoid letting go. The question Heath suggests is perhaps less whether friends are electric and more whether they can, or should be.
There’s No Place Like the Internet in Springtime
Erik Kennedy’s frequently playful book offers intellectual and aesthetic surprises, not least of which in the way it moves beyond its ironic mode to at times vulnerable meditations on politics, family, relationships and the self. The collection is notable for experiments in structure and prosody, weaving the contemporary, per the collection’s title, with updated nods to received forms such as the sonnet and rhyme. Kennedy’s frequently light tonal touch belies the difficulty of the linguistic manoeuvres it deftly performs.
Therese Lloyd’s The Facts combines ekphrasis, literary influence and the personal poem. At times darkly humorous and at others intensely uncomfortable, these poems explore a contemporary approach to the confessional lyric, interrogating emotional experience while maintaining self-awareness and a willingness to look outwards. One engaging thread in the collection is its investigation of the role of art and spirituality in relation to individual trauma and the process of healing.
Tayi Tibble’s first collection brings us fresh, bold poems that saunter and shimmy with an unsettling self-assurance through a range of uncomfortable and familiar tropes. Her words are vital on the page: skewing and renewing the dusky maiden as millennial sex kitten. Her kūpenga snares scenes that an Aotearoa audience will recognise as our own awkward, unequal, power dynamic. Her lyrical kaupapa draws us in to peer at a two-way mirror that is playful, brutal, seductive and disquieting.
ILLUSTRATED NON-FICTION AWARD
Fight for the Forests: The Pivotal Campaigns that Saved New Zealand’s Native Forests
In this powerful account of aspects of recent environmental history in Aotearoa New Zealand, the author brings together a wealth of first-hand accounts and stories to provide an important record of the individuals and groups who made commitments to forest conservation and activism. Historic illustrations and well-chosen archival materials create a sense of context for the reader, while the use of contemporary photography captures the splendour of the natural environment that the book so rightfully celebrates.
Wanted: The Search for the Modernist Murals of E. Mervyn Taylor
Edited by Bronwyn Holloway-Smith
Thoughtfully designed and beautifully presented, the creators of this book about the murals made by artist E. Mervyn Taylor in the 1950s and 1960s have paid considerable attention to both content and production values and the result is impressive. The writers are diverse, the text engaging, and with the aid of well chosen illustrations the book delivers texture and context to a group of important and often overlooked public art works. It also makes a significant contribution to the broader understanding of artistic and cultural activity in mid-century New Zealand.
Tatau: A History of Sāmoan Tattooing
Sean Mallon and Sébastien Galliot
This striking book detailing 3000 years of Sāmoan tattooing immediately invites closer investigation as a result of its integrated approach to design, photography, typography and writing. The ambitious scope of the subject matter and the knowledge of the main authors results in an important body of new scholarship, while the texts remain clear, accessible and engaging. Invited writers add a range of perspectives and experiences appropriate to the subject and intention of the book.
Birdstories: A History of the Birds of New Zealand
This handsomely designed and elegant book offers an expanded history of the birds of Aotearoa New Zealand. The combination of text and illustrations creates a work that is detailed, wide-ranging and informative, illustrating the writer’s advanced understanding of his subject. Birdstories seamlessly brings iconic historical images together with the work of more recent artists and designers to create a volume that presents a real sense of how these birds became a feature of our visual, natural and cultural history, while reinforcing a strong conservation message.
ROYAL SOCIETY TE APĀRANGI AWARD FOR GENERAL NON-FICTION
Hudson & Halls: The Food of Love
This deeply moving and often surprising story is a delight to read. Set against the backdrop of the onscreen double-act many of us will remember, Hudson & Halls conveys the humour, enduring love and drama of this couple’s public and personal relationship. Joanne Drayton’s fresh approach to storytelling highlights significant social and political moments over four decades and three countries, while the story and the book design celebrate some of the kitsch flamboyance of the pair and the period.
A fresh and evocative take on the memoir from Maurice Gee, one of New Zealand’s favourite fiction writers. Three years after the publication of a comprehensive biography, he offers his own Memory Pieces, a compelling three-part memoir exploring his parents’ relationship, his own childhood, and his Swedish-born wife Margaretha’s childhood. This well-crafted and often riveting story is told with warmth and generosity, and presented in a beautifully produced book.
We Can Make a Life
Beautifully written and highly engaging, We Can Make a Life is the story of a remarkable family and their life in the South Island. Told with warmth and curiosity by an exciting new writer with a fresh and compelling voice, Chessie Henry’s powerful memoir explores her childhood, family dynamics, mental health, and the impact of the Christchurch and Kaikoura earthquakes on her family. The assuredness of the writing is complemented by the attractiveness of the book.
With Them Through Hell: New Zealand Medical Services in the First World War
In this exquisitely produced book, Anna Rogers introduces us to the little-known story of New Zealand’s medical services during the Great War. Ambitious in scope, and engagingly written, all dimensions of the medical effort are covered, as are the significant challenges the doctors, nurses, stretcher-bearers, ambulance drivers and pharmacists faced in treating the traumatic impacts of war on the bodies and minds of soldiers. A remarkable history told with skill, compassion and empathy.