The 50 best New Zealand books

By Steve Braunias In Uncategorized

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20th March, 2004 Leave a Comment

Right then. In an age where best-of lists are relentless and immediately open to assorted howls of outrage, the Listener dares to rank the best 50 books ever published in New Zealand.

They have been selected from nominations cast by a panel of 20 literary types around the country – novelists, academics, historians, biographers, poets, publishers, editors and critics. They were simply asked to choose the best books – based on merit, not on sales or prizes, sentimentality or a sense of obligation – written by New Zealand authors.

That was always going to be subjective, a matter of opinion. But there was an obvious agreement among the 20 panellists about the very best books. In that sense, the results are not especially surprising: as Chris Else wrote, “With Mansfield and Curnow, Frame is the only New Zealand writer who has any real claim to greatness.” And so four books by Janet Frame are in the top 10 – the nominations, it’s worth pointing out, were made before Frame’s death in January. No sentimentality: only recognition of the greatness of her work.

Very few votes separated Frame from Katherine Mansfield. Good. Familiarity with Mansfield’s name has bred a kind of contempt, or at least wariness, but her short stories remain – and ought to remain – a superb achievement.

It used to be a literary myth that New Zealand writing was most successful in the short-story genre. Well, bring back the myth: the list includes short-story collections by Frame, Mansfield, Frank Sargeson, Maurice Duggan, Owen Marshall and Witi Ihimaera. But there were also numerous votes for books of poetry, by James K Baxter, Denis Glover, Allen Curnow and R A K Mason. (Why was – oh, her again – Frame overlooked?) As for the Great New Zealand Novelist: yes, Frame again, but only a few votes separated her from the best New Zealand fiction writer alive today. Cheers, Mr Gee.

A note on the criteria asked of the panel: there would be no collecteds, no selecteds. It was felt that a writer ought to be represented by single works, and not their greatest-hits collections; it also explains why Frame’s three-volume autobiography, and Gee’s Plumb trilogy, was broken up in the list. Similarly, anthologies of writing were … discouraged, but rules are made to be broken, and there were simply too many votes for Curnow’s Penguin Anthology of New Zealand Verse for that particular landmark publication to be ignored.

There were what might be considered surprises – the high ranking of Herbert Guthrie-Smith’s 1921 classic, Tutira: The Story of a New Zealand Sheep Station, and the marked fondness among the panel for Shonagh Koea’s novel Sing to Me, Dreamer, and the short story book O’Leary’s Orchard, by Maurice Duggan. And although the entire canon of New Zealand literature was considered, there was room for modern books – Lloyd Jones’s novel The Book of Fame, Tawa by Elizabeth Knox, and, most recently, Michael King’s Penguin History of New Zealand, published in December, and which even at this moment is running out of bookstores. The magnificence of New Zealand historical writing was also partly reflected by room in the list for King’s Te Puea, and works by Sinclair, Beaglehole and Belich.

There were two pictorial publications – Timeless Land, and The South Island of New Zealand from the Road. (Three, if you include J T Salmon’s The Trees of New Zealand.) There were odd birds. It was difficult to know what to do with Owen Marshall, Maurice Shadbolt and Vincent O’Sullivan – all three attracted numerous votes, but for varying titles. Although each of those writers had one book favoured above others by the panel, it could easily be argued that they should have been represented in the list by other books as well.

There were what might be considered quite a few surprising omissions – no Katherine Mansfield: A Biography by Anthony Alpers, no The God Boy by Ian Cross (despite its recent benediction by Penguin as only the second New Zealand book to be republished as a “classic”), and no room, either, in the top 50 – although some votes went their way – for well-known authors including Sylvia Ashton-Warner, Lauris Edmond, A R D Fairburn, Barry Crump, Dan Davin, Noel Hilliard, Nicky Hager, Brian Boyd, Lynley Hood, Albert Wendt, Ian Wedde and Bill Manhire.

Another 100 or so books by New Zealand writers picked up one vote. Apologies, then, are perhaps due to the Listener books editor’s own inclusion of The Tehran Contract at number 50. (It honestly is a really great read.) Still, you oughtn’t be too po-faced about these things (oh, by the way: no one voted for themselves), or try to get away with stating categorically that the list which follows is the absolute truth regarding the history of excellence of New Zealand writing. Readers are welcome to argue the toss, express howls of outrage, etc.

But, the panel has spoken, and the votes have been counted; here, then, is the best guide right now to the top 50 New Zealand books.

1. OWLS DO CRY, Janet Frame (1957).

“With Mansfield and Curnow, Frame is the only New Zealand writer who has any real claim to greatness. This is as intriguing a book now as it was when it first appeared – a special kind of freshness.” – Chris Else

“Drawn along by a powerful under-current of mid-20th-century anxiety when our nation’s authoritarian tendencies were at their most monolithic, Owls Do Cry, penned by possibly our greatest visionary writer, is the touchstone emblematic novel of childhood itself as a time of primal turbulence. All intense lyricism and metaphorical implication, it’s a demonstration of language operating as sensitively as a finely tuned instrument to register the gap between outer social realism and the inner world of the poetic imagination.” – David Eggleton

“Frame’s first novel still has the power to move and disturb. Reading it again recently, I was most startled by its ghastly hilarity, as in the scene where Daphne at the asylum Christmas party rejects Santa’s gift of Ye Olde English Lavender soap and throws it at him, causing him to sneeze ‘at the sharp, cheap perfume’, and is dragged off by the nurses to be locked up. Of the later novels, only Faces in the Water and Living in the Maniototo measure up to this precociously brilliant performance.” – Peter Simpson

2. TO THE IS-LAND, Janet Frame (1982).

“Frame is another reminder that it is the language, and only the language, that imparts literary distinction, and that literary talent is innate, cannot be taught or tamed or tidied.” – C K Stead

“Although deemed an autobiography, it is as much fiction as anything else. It’s wacky, exotic, vivid.” – Brian Turner

3. THE GARDEN PARTY, Katherine Mansfield (1922).

“Her last collection, published after she died, is utterly perfect.” – Lydia Wevers

“She became famous in New Zealand first because she was famous ‘overseas’. But her quality is beyond all that, and the range of her talent shows in the letters and journal-notebooks. She died at 34, too young to have achieved anything like her full potential in fiction. Still the quality, precision, sensibility, wit are all there in the best of the stories – and not necessarily (as convention has it) the New Zealand ones.” – C K Stead

4. BLISS, Katherine Mansfield (1920).

Includes the classic “Prelude”, and a Wellington story written at Acacia Road, “The Wind Blows”. A contemporary critic, H M Tomlinson, in the Nation, wrote this: “Miss Mansfield’s stories are like life reflected in a round mirror. Everything is exquisitely bright, exquisitely distinct, and just a little queer – excitingly queer; we can see round corners and into alcoves that are usually hidden from our sight.”

5. THE LAGOON, Janet Frame (1951).

“Wonderful short stories. Given that many of them were written in a madhouse, they are even more astonishing.” – Chris Else

6. PLUMB, Maurice Gee (1978).

“Any novel by Maurice Gee, any time, gets my vote, book unseen. But Plumb is number one.” – Christine Cole Catley

“Gee’s greatest novel, and one of the country’s most powerful pieces of literature. Plumb casts its own penumbra of reality that is in part a reflection of a perfect match between the author’s know-ledge and his informed imagination. It is one of our truly mythic stories that tells us far more effectively than history alone can what kind of people we are and what kind of society we inhabit.” – Michael King

“An exploration of the dark night of the soul of George Plumb, a Presbyterian minister at the beginning of the 20th century, Plumb is one of New Zealand’s finest novels of ideas. A plum pudding of a book, it possesses a mellow sweetness of tone along with a richness of historical reference that seems to encapsulate an era when a titanic battle to define New Zealand’s psyche was under way – an encapsulation that might be summed up as the struggle between conformity and non-conformity.” – David Eggleton

7. AN ANGEL AT MY TABLE, Janet Frame (1984).

Her second volume of autobiography.

8. IN A GERMAN PENSION, Katherine Mansfield (1911).

Mansfield’s first book brought her – for better or worse – to the attention of John Middleton Murry. It “seemed to express”, wrote the poor devil, “with a power I envied, my own revulsion from life”.

9. TUTIRA: The Story of a New Zealand Sheep Station, Herbert Guthrie-Smith (1921).

“Lip-service is often paid to this book as a New Zealand classic, but if you take the trouble to read it (it runs to 450 large pages), you’ll be amazed; it’s beautifully written, completely absorbing and (especially in its later editions when the consequences of short-sighted farming practices have become evident) deeply prophetic.” – Peter Simpson

“Our first ecological book, and still our best example of this genre. The transformation of New Zealand from bushlands to grasslands farming is anatomised in this close examination of the effects of plant and animal introductions on one piece of Hawke’s Bay. Added values are the author’s quiet erudition and self-deprecating sense of humour.” – Michael King

10. THE BONE PEOPLE, Keri Hulme (1983).

“Sprawling, eclectic and audacious, this ‘shining scrawl’ is the story of Kerewin Holmes, ‘balanced on the saltstain rim’ of the country, the mute boy, Simon Peter, and troubled Joe Gillayley. It’s a rewarding, provocative and unapologetic mess. Any book that inspires such a ferocious backlash in its own country deserves a place high in the top 50.” – Paula Morris

“A book of darkness (gratuitous violence against the child) mixed with schmaltz (Maori magic), leaving a truly unpleasant after-taste, but nonetheless a very powerful novel, the product of an extraordinary talent.” – C K Stead

11. THAT SUMMER, Frank Sargeson (1946).

“I rate the early stories ahead of the later novels because they did for our literature what Twain did for America and Lawson for Australia – taught us to use our own voices and locutions.” – C K Stead

12. MAN ALONE, John Mulgan (1939).

“Mulgan’s only novel was a remarkably mature evocation of God’s own country going to the dogs in the post-World War I decades. Its iconic reputation as a book that celebrates rugged individualism and self-sufficiency is in potent conflict with the socialistic implications of its title that derives from Ernest Hemingway’s statement in To Have and Have Not that ‘a man alone ain’t got no bloody f—ing chance’.” – Peter Simpson

13. THE SCARECROW, Ronald Hugh Morrieson (1963).

How do you like your rural gothic – high, or low? Morrieson effortlessly managed both in this strange tale of sex, death and a deep, peculiarly New Zealand sense of repression. Also, it begins with what is still probably the Great New Zealand Sentence: “The same week our fowls were stolen, Daphne Moran had her throat cut.”

14. NEW ZEALAND TREES, J T Salmon (1980).

“Still the most comprehensive and well-designed record of New Zealand’s native trees, described and illustrated in detail. More than just a botanical account, it also looks at the role of the tree within nature’s harmony and the ancient origins of many species within historical record. A work of art in its own right, as well as providing invaluable reference information.” – Elizabeth Alley

15. MEG, Maurice Gee (1981).

“Gee delves into his mother’s life for this volume of the Plumb trilogy. This is Bill Manhire’s favourite book – he raves about it at all times. Gee is our greatest writer, I think. He deserves international fame and fortune, and possibly a free car.” – Paula Morris

16. NO ORDINARY SUN, Hone Tuwhare (1964).

“The most sensual of New Zealand poets, with a gusto for life that once seemed almost indecent in the prim, decorous days of the recent past, Hone Tuwhare entered the lists with his first collection – a book reprinted 10 times over the next 30 years. No Ordinary Sun, while acknow-ledging other New Zealand poets, was the sound of a new and original voice, and the whole book is a superb lyrical statement that the nation welcomed, greedily.” – David Eggleton.

17. O’LEARY’S ORCHARD, Maurice Duggan (1970).

“Duggan’s scrupulousness never allowed him to expand to a full-length novel, but the two novellas in his last collection – the title story and ‘Riley’s Handbook’- are masterpieces of compression and intensity com-parable only with Mansfield’s best in achieving so much within such a small compass, the one a bitter-sweet and

lyrical celebration of the physical and sexual world, the other a scarifyingly violent rage against the dying of the light.” – Peter Simpson

“What he presented was real, recognisable, but above all had a kind of elegance. Here was a New Zealand writer who wasn’t afraid of style. He wrote with a sometimes Kiwi accent, but the language was as rich and full of echoes as anything from overseas.” – Marilyn Duckworth


ZEALAND, Keith Sinclair (1959).

“Sinclair had an impatient, almost ruffianly determination to be true to the facts and feelings of the time as he found them in the records. He was the first to do some sort of justice to Maori views, but without turning Pakeha into villains and scumbags. He achieved a rare balance.” – C K Stead


“Morrison’s great achievement was in making the ordinary extraordinary. A landmark photographic book, the images captured by one of our pre-eminent photo-graphers re-invent the magical landscape of the South Island in ways that uniquely capture its folk history.” – Elizabeth Alley

20. ONCE WERE WARRIORS, Alan Duff (1990).

“Hard to imagine now what a stir this caused when it first came out. A distinctive voice and a brutal look at parts of our society we preferred not to know about. Its social impact may be even more important than its literary significance. In any case, more New Zealanders have read this book than any other novel written in New Zealand.” – Chris Else

21. SING TO ME, DREAMER, Shonagh Koea (1994).

“Our only magically realistic novel that really works, told with fine style and understated hilarity.” – Graeme Lay

22. JERUSALEM SONNETS, James K Baxter (1970).

“Unlike much of Baxter, the 39 sonnets haven’t dated. They’re as moving, thoughtful and pertinent as when they were first published.” – Lydia Wevers.

“His ‘liberation’ into the full range of his folly, paranoia, religious mania, selfhood, self-indulgence and self-destruction, all lived out vividly on the page, like a man cutting his throat on your best carpet to demonstrate life, death and the circulation of the blood.” – C K Stead

23. TOMORROW WE SAVE THE ORPHANS, Owen Marshall (1992).

“All the collections of Owen Marshall’s stories are excellent for their humour, satire and dark shadows, but it’s hard to beat this collection, because it includes those magnificent stories ‘The Rule of Jenny Pen’ and the title story.” – Brian Turner


Ihimaera (1972).

“Short fiction that has become a classic depiction of Maori rural and urban life.” – Graeme Lay

25. THE NEW ZEALAND WARS, James Belich (1986).

“It’s the dream of every scholar to pull off a trick like Belich did in this book: to write a study of a major subject which

permanently changes the way that history is read.” – Peter Simpson

26. TIMELESS LAND, Grahame Sydney, Brian Turner and Owen Marshall (1995).

“This is a collaboration between three friends, each brilliant in his own way, whose work is deeply connected with Central Otago: poems and stories accompany 50 of Sydney’s landscapes.” – Stephen Stratford

27. THE BOOK OF FAME, Lloyd Jones (2000).

“Stands alongside Once Were Warriors as one of the two indisputably great New Zealand novels published in the past 15 years. More a prose poem than a novel, with every word lovingly handled from line-out to second-phase play, The Book of Fame not only makes the 1905 All Black tour come alive, but also rewrites history in the process.” – Denis Welch

28. POTIKI, Patricia Grace (1986).

“One of those books that is never forgotten, so emblematic of everything that is at stake in our bicultural land.” – Lydia Wevers

“Lyrical and political, embracing both legend and social commentary, Potiki is an intense book about a community under siege. It’s powerful and sad, finely balanced. (This is also the book where Grace renounced the glossary, implicitly asking us to embrace Maori in order to enter the world of the novel.)” – Paula Morris

29. BELIEVERS TO THE BRIGHT COAST, by Vincent O’Sullivan (1998).

“Did you hear the one about the madam, the nun and the chauffeur? An outstanding poet, playwright, anthologist, editor, scholar and now biographer (of John Mulgan), O’Sullivan is – unfairly – also one of our best fiction writers, as this riveting historical novel shows. Equally convincing with both contemplative and earthy passages, he is our Bellow.” – Stephen Stratford

30. PENGUIN BOOK OF NEW ZEALAND VERSE, edited by Allen Curnow (1960).

In which Curnow set a template, and a code of conduct, for New Zealand poetry, in his astute selection and remarkable introductory essay.

31. THE LIFE OF CAPTAIN COOK, James Beaglehole (1974).

“This biography followed Beaglehole’s magisterial edition of Cook’s Journals and distilled the essence of a lifetime’s scholarship in a definitive biographical study.” – Peter Simpson

32. TE PUEA, Michael King (1977).

“The first biography by our best biographer, an important subject and one of a small number of books published in the late 70s that began to fully acknowledge that we were a bicultural society.” – Chris Else

“Because it’s so beautifully written and because it taught a whole Pakeha generation about a hidden history.” – Peter Shaw

33. THE SEASON OF THE JEW, Maurice Shadbolt (1986).

“The first of his New Zealand Wars trilogy is a ripping yarn of historical revisionism, as Shadbolt’s creation George Fairbrother is caught up in Te Kooti’s campaign in Poverty Bay. Told with great gusto, it’s an exhilarating and at times moving read, and much more fun than ploughing through Belich.” – Stephen Stratford

34. DICTIONARY OF NEW ZEALAND ENGLISH, edited by Harry Orsman (1997).

“Language is everything. It shapes the way we think, speak and write. It’s the continent on which meaning is mapped. The Dictionary of New Zealand English helps people from other countries to understand us, it helps us to understand the experiences of our forebears and it allows us to understand ourselves. Besides which, it’s bloody fascinating.” – Jane Hurley

35. GOING WEST, Maurice Gee (1992).

“Stern, stoic, spare. Half a century of impeccably authentic New Zealand lives. The wars between and within the sexes consummately, compassionately anatomised. Men are from Mars; women are from Kohimarama.” – David Hill

36. THE HAUNTING, Margaret Mahy (1982).

“One of her first novels about the miraculous subverting the mundane. It won her the Carnegie Medal and almost everything else. Does anyone really understand how astonishing Mahy is? They should name planets after her.” – David Hill

37. CAME A HOT FRIDAY, Ronald Hugh Morrieson (1964).

“All Morrieson’s four novels are worth reading, but this is perhaps the best managed of them with its masterly manipulation of multiple locations and plot lines and the build up of tension to an unforgettable climax. Came a Hot Friday is also one of the great books about boozing, covering every variety of alcoholic experience from fizzing euphoria to meltdown and blackout.” – Peter Simpson

38. ALL VISITORS ASHORE, C K Stead (1984).

“A novel as fresh and sparkling and stimulating as a breeze on the Waitemata Harbour on a fine day. In lovely long flowing sentences Stead recaptures and reinvents the Auckland of his youth, in the early 1950s, when Frank Sargeson held court in his Takapuna cottage. A picaresque masterpiece.” – Denis Welch

39. ONCE IS ENOUGH, by Frank Sargeson (1973).

“Sargeson’s autobiographical trilogy [this is the first] managed to avoid any reference to the traumatic event which changed his life (and his name) – his arrest for homosexual activities that Michael King revealed in his 1995 biography – but all the same it is a marvellously crafted study that he gave expression to the full (or almost full) range of his experience and personality, something he never quite managed in his fiction.” – Peter Simpson

40. PIG ISLAND LETTERS, James K Baxter (1966).

“Was the best of Baxter in those grave, melancholy early lyrics such as ‘The Bay’ or ‘Wild Bees’, with their wonderful vowel music and their haunting visions of the lost paradise of childhood, or in the ramshackle but moving sonnet sequences of his last years (Jerusalem Sonnets, Autumn Testament)? Each have their advocates, but I personally prefer the tough but eloquent realism of his 1960s poetry, never better than in this harsh but resonant volume.” – Peter Simpson

41. SINGS HARRY, Denis Glover (1951).

“Somehow assuming the persona of Harry – the sharp-eyed, mournful and laconic drifter – freed Glover from the pathological self-consciousness and jokiness that marred most of his work and enabled him to write with a pure lyricism (wonderfully complemented by Douglas Lilburn’s musical settings) as clear as a mountain lake: ‘Once the days were clear/Like mountains in water …’ Once, and once only.” – Peter Simpson

42. THE STORY OF A NEW ZEALAND RIVER, Jane Mander (1920).

“Often dismissed as overly romantic, this wonderful saga of love and duty among the pioneer Pakeha settlers of the Kaipara Harbour still stands re-reading once every few years. Mander’s gift for character is most fully realised in her memorable depictions of women, notably Alice, Asia and the ineffable Mrs Brayton.” – Denis Welch

43. TREES, EFFIGIES, Allen Curnow (1972).

Many of the selection panel voted for at least one collection of Curnow’s verse; the majority nominated his comeback book, his first in nearly a decade, a kind of statement of intent that showed his poetic gifts were fresh and alert.

44. COAL FLAT, Bill Pearson (1963).

“Bill Pearson’s epic account of life in a West Coast mining town makes most of the other numerous attempts at critical realism in the 50s and 60s seem puny by comparison. Pearson’s suppression of his earlier intention of making his hero, Paul Rogers, homosexual makes the book in retrospect seem somewhat hollow-centred, but his sharp-eyed view of New Zealand social mores from his perspective inside the closet has seldom been equalled in its explanatory insights.” – Peter Simpson


“A real history for our time and a classic from the moment of publication. Eminently readable, courageous, almost conversational. A pleasure to keep company with this distinguished scholar.” – Elizabeth Smither

“Easily the best introductory history yet written here.” – Kevin Ireland

46. NO NEW THING, R A K Mason (1934).

“Mason is a man cursed by a 10-year visit from the Muse, who settled on him, like a butterfly on an unremarkable weed, and then departed leaving him wondering what had struck him, and bereft.” – C K Stead

47. TAWA, Elizabeth Knox (1998).

“A little gem. Knox is brilliant about the complex lives of children and she handles the novella with perfect pitch.” – Lydia Wevers

48. A PASSPORT TO HELL, Robin Hyde (1936).

“You absorb the name Robin Hyde almost by osmosis if you’re a woman interested in writing, and of course I’d come across her journalism, but it wasn’t until I read A Passport to Hell and Nor the Years Condemn (1938), both based on the extraordinary ‘Starkey’ (half Kiwi, half Native American, entirely and terrifyingly unique), that I realised what a fine novelist she really was.” – Jane Hurley


John Mulgan (1947).

“This is probably one of the best pieces of non-fiction written by a New Zealander. A much more important book than Man Alone. Still needs to be read by everyone who wants to understand this country.” – Chris Else

“A very sensitively observed picture of what makes a New Zealander both at home and at war. It’s still relevant and I can still read passages in it that move me a great deal.” – Tony Simpson

50. THE TEHRAN CONTRACT, Gayle Rivers (1981).

In which the books editor of the Listener upsets the applecart with his own selection, not backed or probably read by anyone else on the panel. “I had made a habit of looking out for myself since I was a kid in New Zealand, hunting alone in the mountains with a small-bore rifle,” writes the pseudonymous Rivers, who then goes on to tell this scarcely believable but absolutely compelling story: how, as a mercenary, he led other soldiers of fortune into Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran to rescue kidnapped Jewish fugitives. He kills so many people that you wonder if there’s anyone left alive in Iran by the end of this exciting, loathsome account of one New Zealander’s unique OE.

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