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Frustrations of a book buyer in New Zealand

Kaikoura

Stunning scenery in The South Island, New Zealand. But where oh where are the books????

As I headed for my long holiday through New Zealand and Australia, the burning question was not how many pairs of shorts to pack, but how many books I could reasonably take with me.

The tight baggage allowances for some of my shorter flights was one consideration. The other was the knowledge I’d have lug all these books around for weeks.

Friends who have travelled extensively in the region assured me I’d have no problem buying new books en route. Although the prices tend to be a lot higher than in the UK, second hand bookshops are plentiful and many coffee shops have used books on sale they said.

Reassured I wouldn’t be left high and dry, and viewing this holiday as a chance to expand my horizons and discover new authors, I decided to limit my bookish companions to just three physical books:

Last Man in the Tower by Arvind Adiga

Bookman, Anna Burns Booker prize winning novel

Sixteen Trees of the Somme by Lars Myerling

In the event my trek around Australia never materialised (but that’s another story).

The promised paradise of book supplies never materialised either.

Our first stopping point was the popular coastal resort of Whitianga. No bookstore in sight. The nearest we got was this display of used books – they’d obviously been in the sun for many weeks.  Even I wasn’t that desperate (they had nothing to appeal anyway).

books for saleJPG

Two stops later, we reached Lake Taupo, another popular location for tourists. Things started to look up when the owner of the motel we stayed in mentioned he had shelves full of books other guests had left behind. He almost begged me to take them.

Unfortunately they were rather a sad collection of discarded travel guides (a few years out of date), light romances and crime. Every blockbuster crime writer was in evidence.  Clearly this is what travellers like to read …

Despite drinking more flat whites than I’ve drunk in my life, I never did find a coffee shop with a bookshelf of used books for sale.

By the time we got to what proved to be our final destination, the large town of Nelson in the South Island, I was down to my last paperback (Sixteen Trees of the Somme). I still had plenty of options on the e-reader but I really wanted the feeling of turning pages.

Nelson did have three bookshops: two chains and one independent. I headed to them in great excitement, equipped with a list of New Zealand authors I picked up at the local library.

What a disappointment to find hardly any of these authors on sale. Most of the books being promoted were by authors from outside the southern hemisphere in fact (crime fiction was once again much in evidence. )

It was a shock to find that books in New Zealand are very expensive –  a good 30% higher than prices in the UK.  As an example, I bought my copy of Milkman in the UK for £7.99 (about 17 New Zealand dollars). In New Zealand, it was on sale for 30 New Zealand dollars. Most novels in fact were in that price range and even higher. They were not hardback editions, they were what I call ‘airport edition’ size – so a soft cover but a larger format.  I’m not surprised to find that book sales are falling in New Zealand.

Volume Bookshop New Zealand

Volume: independent bookstore in Nelson, New Zealand

I got into an interesting conversation on the pricing issue with Thomas, one of the co-owners of Volume, a delightful independent bookshop in what’s called the city’s Bohemian Quarter. Prices are apparently high because the market in New Zealand is small (the whole country has a population only just over four million) so print runs are low, and thus publishers don’t get the benefits of economies of scale. Many books are printed outside the country, so prices have to include transport costs. Plus, books in New Zealand (unlike those in the UK ) are not exempt from the sales tax.

I heard a different side to this issue from Lisa at ANZLitlovers – the real issue in Lisa’s view is that New Zealand publishers don’t aggressively market their wares outside of the country. Not even to their near neighbours, Australia (population 25million). What a missed opportunity…

This helps explain why I struggled to think of any New Zealand authors ahead of my trip; if they don’t get promoted to potential readers on their near doorstep, they’re hardly going to be making an effort to get them known in the UK.

I know what you’re wondering …. did I buy anything?

The New ShipsWell yes I did, but I was restrained. I bought just one book: The New Ships by Kate Duigan. It’s been shortlisted for the New Zealand Book Awards 2019. It’s a layered family history narrated by Peter Collie, a partner in a prestigious  law firm. Set in Wellington, New Zealand, it moves to London, Europe and the Indian subcontinent as Collie tries to make sense of his past.

I was tempted by another of the award contenders: The Cage by Lloyd Jones but I had already read one of his novels previously, Mr Pip which was published in 2006 whereas reading Duigan  would be a new experience. Anyway it seems I can get The Cage for a reasonable price in the UK so may well end up buying that at some point.

If anyone is interested, the New Zealand authors whose names were given to me by a helpful librarian were:

  • Eleanor Catton (winner of the Booker Prize with The Luminaries)
  • Keri Hulme (winner of the Booker Prize with The Bone People)
  • Lloyd George (author of Mr Pip)
  • Ngaio Marsh
  • Janet Frame
  • Witi Tame Ihimaera
  • Maurice Gee
  • Elizabeth Knox
  • Patricia Grace

If you know any of these writers and have a recommendation, do let me know. I’ll try and get them from a UK supplier (the chances of my library stocking them are very slim).

 

 

 

 

The Bone People by Keri Hulme

Keri Hulme’s 1985 Booker Prize winning book The Bone People is one of those novels for which the word unorthodox would be a woefully inadequate description.

TheBonePeopleRejecting the exhortation frequently heard in creative writing courses that novice writers should focus on just one narrative point of view, Hulme switches perspectives between her three principal characters. She mixes poetry and song with prose, mingles English with the Polynesian language of the indigenous Maori population of New Zealand and even creates new words where she believes a standard lexicon simply doesn’t adequately capture the meaning she wants to convey.

The result is an extraordinary novel that was 12 years in the making and rejected by most publishers who thought it unwieldy and too different. Even those who were interested would publish it only on condition she made severe edits (she refused). It  saw the light of day only because of a small publishing firm in New Zealand whose owners came from the same Maori tribe as Hulme.

The Bone People went on to become of the most controversial winners of the Booker Prize, deeply dividing critical opinion between those who felt Hulme had broken new literary ground and those who considered its quasi spiritual aspects pretentious and its prose barely comprehensible.

With that background in my head, I approached The Bone People with trepidation.  The mystical tones of the opening didn’t do much for my nervousness level but I persevered and eventually the book began to take hold. Yes there were many times when I was completely bewildered as tenses changed mid paragraph, punctuation was omitted and interior monologues were introduced without any preamble to indicate which character was actually speaking. Without the helpful glossary there were many sections of dialogue that would have been completely meaningless. And yes there was a higher quota of pseudo mysticism than I can normally tolerate. But — and it is a big but — there was a quality about this novel that kept drawing me back to it, making me want to keep reading even if I wasn’t sure exactly what I was reading.

The Bone People is essentially a tale of three broken, battered and bruised individuals and how they try to build a family out of their pain and suffering. Kerewin Holmes (note the resonance with the author’s name) is a painter who has cut off all connections with her family, She lives in solitude in a beachside home called The Tower, spending her days fishing and trying, but failing, to paint anything worthwhile. Her life is  fuelled by copious amounts of alcohol. Into her home and her life stumbles Simon, a deeply disturbed and mute six year old boy whose anti social habits of stealing and violence against classmates have made him notorious in the small island community. Yet Keri warms to him and to Joe, a Maori who informally adopted the boy when he found him washed ashore after a yachting accident.  Joe is contending with his own demons having lost his own child and wife shortly after Simon’s appearance.  Slowly the trio form a bond but its strength is tested when Holmes learns the truth about the scars on Simon’s body. Her discovery has devastating consequences.

The question Hulmes poses in the novel is not simply whether the rupture between the members of this trio can be healed, but whether they can each find peace with themselves and with the world. Each, she seems to suggest, must endure more suffering before they can be made whole again. Home and the ties of family are twin pillars  of hope for these three sufferers.  As Simon says at one point late in the book:

He had endured it all. Whatever they did to him, and however long it was going to take, he could endure it. Provided that at the end he could go home.  ……if he can’t go home, he might as well not be. They might as well not be, because they only make sense together. We have to be together. If we are not, we are nothing. We are broken.

It’s a disturbing book with some shocking moments of violence. Counter-balancing the tension are moments of pure comedy and moments of reflection in which Hulme’s writing takes on a more poetic tone. It was unfortunate that in the last quarter of the book she introduced some semi-mystical figures and mysterious potions to help get towards a resolution.  It’s such a shame that Hulme resisted all advice to edit the text because her book was strong enough without  these contrivances.

Hulme has achieved something however that is remarkable. It will either leave you captivated or completely bewildered and frustrated. What you won’t do is to forget it since this is one book that leaves a lasting impression.

 

 

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