Small Things like These, by Claire Keegan
The Magdalen laundries, tool of the Catholic Church and Irish state, was closed down in 1996, to abject disgrace. In 2013 the Irish government gave a much belated apology to the women who had suffered in these prisons of forced labour. Women who had ‘fallen’ and needed to be removed from society. Some thirty thousand women are estimated to have been incarcerated, their babies adopted out. A shocking number of babies died.
Fallen. That word. Young women ‘fell’ pregnant. Their fault for being a bit clumsy, tripping up because they weren’t paying attention.
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We seem to have been waiting such a long time for this book. Kāwai is truly groundbreaking and I hope that it clears the way for more stories in this historical and cultural setting. So what’s the big deal with Kāwai and why has it been so phenomenally successful?
Firstly, no one has published such an epic saga of Māori life before, and the timing now is impeccable. It seems Soutar has been coming all his life to be writing this story now (for such a time as this), when not only does he have the necessary contacts and learning and experience, but there is an audience with a huge appetite for stories and discussions of our history and people. Just look at how the bestsellers lists over the past three or four years have been dominated by things Māori. We’re open and primed for a big, readable Māori story that would have been unthinkable twenty, even ten years ago. And here it is and it’s fascinating.
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The Axeman’s Carnival by Catherine Chidgey
Last book of the year and an absolute favourite. I devoured this in a couple of long sessions after Christmas and it’s a splendid read, just perfect to take on holiday (or mooch in the hammock at home ignoring things, as I did). I hand on heart recommend this to anyone. It’s such a great yarn. Very rural kiwi.
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Demon Copperhead, by Barbara Kingsolver
Yes, yes, yes. Can Barbra Kingsolver write yet another ground-breakingly brilliant novel? Can this intellectual powerhouse of a woman, at 67, write convincingly as a troubled, drug addled, abused orphaned boy? And finally: how on earth does she do this – is she a shape-shifter? As to the question: do you have to read David Copperfield first to understand Demon Copperhead? The answer is no. The book stands on its own, the nod to Dickens a realisation that the societal blindness of 170 years ago hasn’t changed. The bottom of the pile still stinks.
Hillbillies. They’re a bit of a joke, surely? It’s an historical term for unsophisticated, rural folk who live in the boondocks and marry their cousins. This story takes us there, into the hills of Lee County, Virginia, to the deprivations of trailer-life poverty and a boy, Damon, growing up hungry in a fully dysfunctional life. They try to own the word “hillbilly” but it still owns them.
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This is a family story where an off-the-rails daughter living in a caravan gives birth to a fish. Our narrator (first person, never named, so I’ll call him the Fish’s uncle) is pretty clear about this. The thing being held up to be admired is an oddity, slightly revolting, not quite human. A thing with a gulping lips, a rubbery mouth. With gills, and an overwhelming fishy smell. What kind of creature the baby is we never really learn and this makes the whole story intensely curious. Although the Fish’s uncle refers to ‘it’ and ‘the Fish’ or ‘our Fish’ throughout, the others give it a masculine pronoun and the Fish is named after his grandfather, Colin Montgomery. The Fish grows up and goes to school, leaves school, goes to work in the family junk yard, goes on holiday. He may be a boy with some kind of horrendous congenital disability or the horror may belong to the view of the Fish’s uncle but we, the readers, are unwillingly (for me, anyway) made complicit in the relegation of the Fish to ‘freak’. The Fish is part of the family and loved even, with a kind of every-family-has-its-cross-to bear embarrassment, but an object who is is given no internal life of his own. We meet him as onlookers – never communicate directly with him, never try to understand.
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Still Life, by Sarah Winman
After a strange first chapter this book leaps into absolute gorgeousness and oh God! It helps that I read it in Italy. The Allied Troops are waiting to enter Florence. With them, is a young man, Ulysses Temper, and his Captain Darnley. Darnley has seen to it that the younger man should fall in love with Italy. “A little over a month before, they’d driven up to Orvieto, a city built on a huge rock overlooking the Paglia Valley. They’d sat on the bonnet of the jeep and drunk red wine out of their canteens as bombers roared overhead towards Mount Cetona, the boundary of Tuscany. They’d stumbled into the cathedral, into the San Brizio chapel, where Luca Signorelli’s masterpiece of the Last Judgement could be found. Neither of them believers, the images had still held them to account.” As they drive away their jeep is waved down by Evelyn Skinner, art historian, who needs a lift.
The dialogue between Evelyn and Ulysses is perfect. English, clipped, wry funny, understated. You can tell these two are going to be friends for life. In the fast way of two people who click but realise they will probably never meet again, Evelyn sums herself up. Kent. Sixty-four. Unmarried. Childless. We feel she’s also posh, independent and full of zing. He’s: London. Twenty-four. Married, no kids. He tells her he’s the son of a globe maker. “Find a Temper & Son globe and you’ll find my mum’s name hidden somewhere on the surface.” Lots of little villages called Nora. How romantic is that?
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A Fish in the Swim of the World, by Ben Brown
Ben Brown (Ngāti Mahuta, Ngāti Korokī, Ngāti Paoa) is a story teller. His stories are philosophical and luminous and funny and intellectual and they plunge from one mood to the other without missing a beat. I spent a week in a van driving around Taranaki with him recently and our conversations changed me, though it’s hard to say exactly how.
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Prianesi, by Susanna Clarke
“When the Moon rose in the Third Northern Hall I went to the Ninth Vestibule.” As a first sentence that’s a big turn off for someone jaded by fantasy. But the book was recommended by my friend Tess, who is a sensible woman and a journalist and unlikely to send me off to some hokey warring kingdoms where women with shining braids and medieval gowns face boy warriors with superpowers who are battling some evil psycho. Happy to say this turned out to be one of the most original novels I’ve read since…oh, lets go back a lifetime to John Fowles’s The Magus. But without the horror.
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Greta & Valdin by Rebecca K Reilly
This is so refreshing for a New Zealand book—hooray for getting away from the cliché that all kiwis are boring monoglot parochials. Here’s a great new cast of characters, a whole blended extended Vladisavljevic whanau of Russian, Māori, Catalans, some other eastern Europeans I think – Romanian? There’s a complicated relationship with this lot, academics and students at Auckland Uni woven around the main unit of Greta and her brother Valdin, who are our storytellers. I’ve never met people like them but wish I had. The dinner time conversations are epic. ‘The first time I brought you round to my parents’ house I told everyone to act like regular people and V threw the remote out the window so no one could change the channel from Eurovision and a squid had exploded on my dad at work.’ There’s a confusing series of relationships across the group, bi, straight and gay—an uncle’s husband’s brother is the boyfriend of Valdin and a brother-in-law’s husband a straight ex-lover (ex?). I had to draw a curly family tree to get it straight. Like life. It’s complicated.
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Catching the Current, by Jenny Pattrick
If you have read and enjoyed Jenny Pattrick’s latest, Harbouring, do go for a romp around her backlist. They’re consistently good. I’ve just reread Catching the Current and enjoyed it the second time around even more than in 2005 when it was first published.
This is a prequel to Denniston Rose, but reads as a stand-alone story based on the early life of Faroe Islander, Conrad Rasmussen—known to Denniston fans as Con the Brake. He’s tall, fair and handsome, playful, talkative, a renowned singer and teller of tales, and pretty full of himself. He excels at everything he turns his hand to, a man not to be ignored. He’s quick to temper and loyal to his friends—a lover, a hero.
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