A visceral novel about surgeon burnout and the complexities of failure; a heartwarming story set in a provincial North Otago town about an ex-rugby player; a pitch black story about a suicidal dentist in California, and a gritty social realist tale of fractured families and the effects of violence.
What do they share? They're all in the running for this year's Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction shortlist at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.
With a swish $55,000 up for grabs, it's New Zealand's richest fiction prize. I always have high hopes and an occasionally stroppy opinion about who ought to win but really, who can predict? The last two winners have been exceptional and were among my favourite novels published in their respective years: in 2018, The New Animals by Pip Adam and, for 2019, Fiona Kidman's This Mortal Boy.
I've read my way through 2020's shortlist and have felt like I've lived inside these novels during the last few weeks. Each book on the shortlist is completely different and all of them have an immense literary strength so it feels wrong to pick one darling.
A Mistake by Carl Shuker was one of my favourite novels of 2019. Shuker is such a sophisticated and singular voice in New Zealand fiction, I'll read anything by him. A Mistake clocks in at a slim 182 pages, but it packs a mighty wallop. At 42-years-old, Elizabeth Taylor is the youngest and only woman consultant general surgeon at Wellington Hospital. She boasts a pristine track record. But during what should be a fairly routine procedure, a mistake happens and people want Taylor held accountable. In a frosty, diagnostic style, Shuker deftly explores the complexities around human fallibility. There's a real sense of tension and urgency in this eerie mood piece and I'd be thrilled for Shuker if he nabbed the prize.
Owen Marshall is best known for being the master of the short story so it's no surprise his novel Pearly Gates is polished and refined. Beautifully plotted with a cast of charming characters, it's set in a small North Otago town and our main character is Pat "Pearly" Gates. Pearly is a two-term mayor, a real estate agent and an ex-rugby player. Accustomed to success, he's a bit of an arrogant high achiever. This is a great Kiwi yarn, the kind of gentle and comforting read that so many people would feel like reading right now.
I love David Vann's books. A Legend of a Suicide felt like such a thrillingly groundbreaking work of fiction where Vann explored the real-life suicide of his father Jim. With Caribou Island, he fictionalised the real-life trauma of his stepmother, whose parents were involved in a tragic murder/suicide only 11 months before his father's suicide. Now with Halibut on the Moon, Vann returns to his father's story. This novel is harsh and direct with a heavy sadness but it's not without empathy and brilliant flashes of dark humour. Halibut on the Moon is a powerful read but I'd love to see where else Vann's fiction can go.
If bookshops were open to the public right now and I was treading the shop floor chatting to customers about books, the one I would be putting into everyone's hands is Becky Manawatu's Auē. This novel is extraordinary. Taukiri and Ārama are recently orphaned brothers. Taukiri drops Ārama off to stay with their Aunty Kat and Uncle Stu who is a violent bully. Ārama pines for his brother to come back and get him.
This is the kind of social realist New Zealand fiction I'm thrilled to see being published in New Zealand. I finished reading it at 2.30am with my heart thumping in my chest as I accelerated through the last 100 pages towards the end. I'll never forget that feeling. And so powerful is this book that I spent the next few days with a kind of book hangover.
This is a real punch-in-the-guts kind of novel but while it deals with themes of domestic violence, gang culture, grief and fractured families and, is at times, a heartbreaking read; it is also a beautifully pitched and nuanced hopeful story about the power of love, friendship and family. It shifts perspectives between characters, and the skillful way Manawatu captures the inner world and voice of each character feels vibrant and authentic.
This is already set to be one of my books of 2020 and is my pick for the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction. Regardless, I think everybody should read Auē. It's a book that people will still be talking about in decades to come.
The full list of nominees is:
Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction:
Auē by Becky Manawatu
Pearly Gates by Owen Marshall
A Mistake by Carl Shuker
Halibut on the Moon by David Vann
Mary and Peter Biggs Awards for Poetry:
Moth Hour by Anne Kennedy
How to Live by Helen Rickerby
Lay Studies by Steven Toussaint
How I Get Ready by Ashleigh Young
Illustrated Non-Fiction Award:
Crafting Aotearoa: A Cultural History of Making in New Zealand and the Wider Moana Oceania edited by Karl Chitham, Kolokesa U Māhina-Tuai, Damian Skinner
Protest Tautohetohe: Objects of Resistance, Persistence and Defiance edited by Stephanie Gibson, Matariki Williams, Puawai Cairns
We Are Here: An Atlas of Aotearoa by Chris McDowall and Tim Denee
McCahon Country by Justin Paton
General Non-Fiction Award:
Dead People I Have Known by Shayne Carter
Shirley Smith: An Examined Life by Sarah Gaitanos
Wild Honey: Reading New Zealand Women's Poetry by Paula Green
Towards the Mountain: A Story of Grief and Hope Forty Years on from Erebus by Sarah Myles
WATCH LIVE: • The New Zealand Herald will live stream the Ockham NZ Book Awards proceedings right here from 7pm on Tuesday May 12.