Wednesday, June 23, 2010

NZ Post Book Awards don't love us all at all

I am incensed that the all-new NZ Post Book Awards has failed to shortlist Damien Wilkins' tour de force Somebody Loves Us All. He is one of this country's best novelists and this is a bloody good novel - as you'd expect from Damien who has received excellent reviews for his novels in the US as well as here.
“The New Zealand novel of the year and Wilkins' best work so far.” Nicholas Reid, Sunday Star-Times 13/12/09 [this quote has been added late to the post, thanks to 'Glow Little Glowworm' in the comments below.]
I am not passing judgement on the three chosen ones - Fiona Farrell's Limestone, Owen Marshall's Living as a Moon and Alison Wong's As the Earth Turns Silver. I admire and respect these authors and offer my heartfelt congratulations. I also admire and respect the panel of judges led by Stephen Stratford.

But why oh why such a skinny, nay, stingy list? Why not a generous handful of novels to recognise all that is excellent - and to persuade a cautious reading public to get into some of them* - not just Wilkins either, how about Charlotte Grimshaw? Ruth Pettis? Even if Somebody Loves Us All was not a judge's  cup of tea it would have had to have made a shortlist of five or six. Surely. [This paragraph was directed at the judges when I first posted, but it has been pointed out to me that the judges had no leeway, they had to choose only three, so I am redirecting it to those who set up the new awards - Booksellers and the sponsor NZ Post.] 

Here, dear blog reader, is my original review of Damien's novel posted while I was doing my summer reading in a hammock in the Wairarapa. The best thing you can do now to make up for its exclusion from the country's top book awards is to get out and buy this book and read it.

"King of the Hammock so far is the deliciously joyful, perceptive and funny Somebody Loves Us All by Damien Wilkins. This is a tour de force by the Wellington author written while basking in the Menton sun as last year’s Katherine Mansfield fellow. His joy at having time to write and being somewhere else is evident in this book. But like most ‘exiled’ writers, his mind fell back to where he came from and Somebody Loves Us All is set slap bang in apartment-living central Wellington with segues into Lower Hutt and Petone, and a trip through the Desert Road.

It’s about Paddy who’s 50 and a speech therapist with a regular newspaper column and a recalcitrant patient - Sam - who refuses, for some reason, to speak. Paddy's also happily married and the proud new owner of a bicycle. Enter his ageing mother, who moves in next door and starts – with no knowledge of the language – speaking French.

As usual, Wilkins skewers the social stuff – the ways people are when they graze and grapple with each other, especially families. He always gets the mix of wonder and disgust, vulnerability and bullying, knowing and surprise, humour and sadness, vanity and self-loathing that characterise our relationships, but in his latest novel there is more wonder and humour, more surprise and vulnerability. This time, Wilkins nails the emotional stuff, and his novel is more expansive and more satisfying as a result. Definitely up at the top of my 'best of' list for the year.

What I treasure most of all reading Somebody Loves Us All are those laugh-out-loud moments - oh don’t we need those in a book! doesn’t comedy trump tragedy every time? These hover especially around the relationship Paddy has with his old mate, Lant, who is divorced and single and a demon on a bike. Their competitive cycling relationship made me howl – the question of who has the most sophisticated cycling gear and who can make it up the Hataitai hill first without being killed. Fabulous.

And then there's the mother. Her story is on the other end of the scale. Deeply and marvellously moving. The ending a triumph."

The full original review is here. Plus the NZ Book Awards announcement and follow-up releases and heated discussion  can be found on the marvellous Beattie's Bookblog.

* Okay, so being shortlisted doesn't always affect a novel's sales much, but winning always does (and you can only win if you're shortlisted, right?) On the other hand, The Blue hit the bestseller list while it was shortlisted in 2008 and that continued after it won Best First Book and Readers Choice Awards. And for some books the difference between a few unexpected sales after hitting a shortlist and flat-lining in the sales stakes is huge. Sales aren't everything either, remember those intrepid library readers... And remember, too, what maketh a writer's career - being short-listed in a major award often influences his/her future funding and ability to continue writing. 


Rachel Fenton said...

I seem to remember there being a rant about these awards last year, too...I feel quite sad about the writing scene in NZ.

I was in a major bookstore at the weekend and was stunned to learn they do not stock any - not a single one - of the books of the last year and a half that I wanted - all brilliant novels! So, leaving, assuming it was because the said authors weren't kiwis, I discover that even the kiwis don't value their own talent - how is anyone else supposed to get anywhere? It's such a stifled insular view from in here.

Paul Shannon said...

As Rachel above says it does reveal the stingy nature of the book scene here -- there's no depth. Everyone is always looking for the latest - booksellers included who do not stock anything beyond the last year unless you're Lloyd Jones (and that's not to be unfair to Lloyd).

Only 3 pieces of fiction as finalists - you'd think we were a tiny island of very few inhabitants, which i suppose we really are.

Glow Little Glowworm said...

“The New Zealand novel of the year and Wilkins' best work so far.” Nicholas Reid, Sunday Star-Times, 13/12/09

Mary McCallum said...

Yes, Rachel, you're right - every year for the past couple of years there's been a stoush about the shrinking number on the short-list. And you're right, Rachel and Paul, that the big booksellers only have their eyes on the next new thing - with many moving books on (especially NZ fiction) after a matter of months. This means that excellent books are not getting their day in the sun - many sinking without a trace.

Thanks so much for the Reid quote Glowworm. I've put it up in the post.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.