This year has been about renewing my vows with New Zealand literature, apart from a brief flirtation with Edna O'Brien – Irish, fearless, and still writing in her late 80s. I was taken with The Country Girls trilogy, published in 1964, and wanted to round off with Girl (2020). O'Brien based her most recent novel on a young Nigerian woman's escape from Boko Haram.
Inevitably, she was criticised for cultural appropriation, a hard charge to defend – but O'Brien's integrity and empathy, her own back story and compulsion to change the world is a strong defence. "I want to go out as someone who spoke the truth," she says. Being a straight-talker myself, naturally I'm a fan.
A little late to the party, but I've also just finished Witi Ihimaera's Māori Boy: A Memoir of Childhood (2014). If you're wanting to better understand cultural differences in these fast-changing times, Ihimaera's generous, wide-ranging memoir is the perfect place to start. As he says,"Māori culture is the taonga, the treasure vault from which I source my inspiration."
This treasure vault is the bedrock of Māori Boy, including the Māori approach to storytelling. Because the tradition thrives on digression, Ihimaera's text spills out in countless directions. Creation stories, tīpuna, and historical figures jostle for space alongside the shearing gangs, British migrants, and tennis tournaments in 1950s Gisborne. Ihimaera isn't so concerned with lining up the facts. He's more intent on recreating a time and place now lost.
Bug Week by Airini Beautrais is world-class, her short stories reminding me over and over why I love the form so much – that swift immediacy of being granted access to other people's lives, the distillation of those things we all struggle with. Beautrais' forensic prose (she's also a poet) delivers some stiff blows: the bleak, frozen first days in a women's refuge; a heartbroken jogger stalking her ex.
Male power, in its many different guises, lurks in many corners (much of the book was written during #metoo), and the confronting A Quiet Death, with its doctor/rapist, stayed with me for days. Stories are set in Whanganui and the former East Germany, and one – surprisingly the best – features a talking albatross hectoring fishermen in a pub for their careless ways. Buy several copies. It's a book you'll want to share.
Susan Paris is the co-editor, along with Kate De Goldi, of Skinny Dip (Annual Ink/Massey University Press, $30)