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Fear, Fun and Farnarkeling: A Road Trip Through Literary NZ

From children’s fables of magic and heroism, to accounts of poverty, isolation, and catastrophic violence, to absurdist comedies and stories of sweet romance, New Zealand’s literary heritage is vast. As the country remains on lockdown so too do its bookstores. Despite this, NZ’s booksellers are continuing to find innovative ways to foster creative communities and bring books to readers. Text is proud to support New Zealand’s rich cultural history, publishing NZ authors both new and established, and providing readers with the opportunity to rediscover its classics.

In Craig Harrison’s The Quiet Earth (an apt recommendation in our present state) a man wakes up alone. No people, no animals, no electricity, no signs of life anywhere. As he wanders, he considers his immunity to whatever cataclysm has struck. As he nears the edge of insanity, however, he happens upon a river of fish and realises…He may not be alone after all. Gripping, atmospheric, and unnervingly prescient, The Quiet Earth serves as a great first stop on a rich passage into literary New Zealand.

The solitude of The Quiet Earth is not uncommon among NZ’s classics. David Ballantyne’s Sydney Bridge Upside Down is another book that explores the creeping unease of a summer spent at ‘the edge of the world’. Its unusual narrator, Harry Baird, could easily slip into Neddy Poindexter’s miscreant gang in Ronald H. Morrieson’s The Scarecrow. Morrieson’s book looks back at fourteen-year-old Neddy’s run-in with a killer in a ‘trippy’ backwater town. These darkly funny and confronting books showcase a fearlessness in NZ fiction that threads through post-war NZ lit to more current works from Stephen Daisley (Traitor), Nic Low (Arms Race), and Lloyd Jones (The Cage).

Lloyd Jones is one the country’s most recognisable names. His much-loved and honoured Mister Pip, about a girl called Matilda, is a glorious ode to the stories that shape us. Just as beloved is Jones’s The Book Of Fame, about the 1905 All Blacks rugby tour of Europe that changed not only the lives of a group of men, but the nation itself.

Graeme Simsion is another of NZ’s most beloved writers. Simsion’s Rosie novels are that rare gift: funny and heartfelt, quixotic and wise. Simsion, and indeed his singular star, Don Tillman, are beloved worldwide for bringing to readers a new kind of romantic hero. Adding to the fun is Text’s small library of works by NZ’s farnarkeling favourite, the comedian and satirist John Clarke. Among Clarke’s must-reads are the political piss-takes The 7.56 Report, The Howard Miracle and The Catastrophe Continues, a best-of compendium, Tinkering, and the treasured absurdist classic, The Tournament.

Our NZ middle-grade and YA novels feature adventurous and whimsical characters connected to the natural world and fiercely aware of the importance of friendship. Joy Cowley’s Snake And Lizard features a mismatched duo who prove that, despite their differences, they’re destined to remain lifelong pals. Weng Wai Chan’s wartime story Lizard’s Tale introduces Lizard, a petty thief who finds himself at the centre of a dangerous criminal plot. Luckily, Lizard has a wily team of friends to help him out of some tough scrapes. Dystopian landscapes, visionary narratives, philosophy and science show up in Bernard Beckett’s novels (GenesisLullabyJolt), Jane Higgins’ Southside series (The BridgeHavoc), and Maurice Gee’s Salt Trilogy. 

Widely considered New Zealand’s best novel, Janet Frame’s Owls Do Cry is high on the list of NZ must-reads. The book, as complex as its author, is about a family in crisis. In the character of Daphne Withers, it brings to life an inspirational and era-defining heroine. Isolation and the toll of expectation on Depression-era women is similarly explored in the works of Ruth Park, most notably her memoir of childhood, A Fence Around the Cuckoo. These themes endure today, showing up in Ruby Porter’s 2019 novel Attraction, which looks at female friendships, broken relationships, and disconnections between the past and present.

Text’s NZ connection further expands this year with the publication in September of Tom Remiger’s Soldiers. Winner of the Michael Gifkins Prize, Soldiers combines a gripping mystery with themes of solitude, lost connections, the complexities of progress, and the wonders of self-discovery. It builds on the grand and lasting tradition of New Zealand writing. We look forward to seeing it on our shelves, and yours.


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