Nine of the best books about New Zealand

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Despite being a relatively young country, there is a wealth of great books by New Zealand authors. Many of these are books set in New Zealand, but others, like Elizabeth Knox’s The Vintner’s Luck, or Lloyd Jones’ Mr Pip, take place offshore.

For the purposes of this list of the best books about New Zealand though, I have focused on titles that were both written by Kiwis and take place on the islands of Aotearoa.

Often dark and self-reflective, many of the best New Zealand books turn a critical eye on our history and our society to examine what is going wrong, and how we can do it differently. Our tourism brand, 100% Pure suggests that everything is perfect in Godzone, but it is a strength of our authors, filmmakers, artists and musicians that they can create things that are immensely meaningful from the areas we need to improve. It is for that reason, and many others, that I’m so proud to call New Zealand home.

At the time of writing this post, much of the world is locked down, and so, for book-loving travellers like me, the only thing to do is turn to books. New Zealand is on full travel restrictions, and so it would be near impossible for me to get home any other way.

I hope that you enjoy these nine suggestions (along with some extras thrown in for good measure), and if there are other amazing novels about New Zealand that you think I’ve missed, let me know!

Once Were Warriors by Alan Duff

Not for the faint of heart, Once Were Warriors is, in my opinion, one of the best New Zealand books of all time. Set in south Auckland, in the 1950s (although the film of the same name takes place in the 1980s, suggesting little has changed), Beth Heke struggles to bring up her family in a neighbourhood, and home, that is plagued by violence, gangs, and alcohol and drug abuse. Her husband, Jake, is violent. Social Welfare are knocking on her door. Looking beyond the superficial, Duff’s work captures the effects of intergenerational poverty and trauma, and explores the impact of colonisation on urban Māori families. It’s a challenging, but worthwhile, read.

Alan Duff’s follow up novels, What Becomes of the Broken Hearted, and Jake’s Long Shadow continue the Heke family’s story, but have received less attention than the original book.

Buy Once Were Warriors from Amazon or Book Depository now

The Garden Party & Other Stories by Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield is one of New Zealand’s most well-known authors. Born in Wellington, she moved to Europe as a young woman, making friends with notable authors and literary figures of the time, before dying of tuberculosis in her 30s. Despite generally being considered to have little love for the country of her birth, her best-known short stories are often sketches of life there. Her brother, Leslie’s, death in WWI further pushed her focus towards the memories of her childhood. The Garden Party and Other Stories is a collection that contains many of her most famous short stories, including “At the Bay”, “The Garden Party”, and “Miss Brill”.

“Prelude” and “The Woman at the Store” are also of note, but not included in that collection.

Buy The Garden Party and Other Stories from Amazon or Book Depository now

The Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera

The Whale Rider (along with the internationally-acclaimed film of the same name) is the story of a young Māori girl, Kahu, who is overlooked as a potential chief for her tribe by her traditional, male-focused grandfather. Despite this setback, Kahu is destined for great things, and her spiritual connection to her ancestors is there to guide her. An easy read, The Whale Rider provides a good introduction to Māori culture for anyone intending to visit. Witi Ihimaera’s other works, including Bulibasha and Pounamu, Pounamu are also worth reading.

Buy The Whale Rider from Amazon or Book Depository now

The Bone People by Keri Hulme

Hulme’s only novel, and New Zealand’s first Booker Prize winner, The Bone People tells the story of a group of broken individuals: Joe, his foster son, Simon, and Kerewin, a loner who lives alone in a tower on the beach. Despite her better judgment, Kerewin finds herself drawn, first to the young, mute, Simon, and later to Joe as well. This is not the easiest read (and was initially rejected by publishers for being incomprehensible), but I’ve still come back to it multiple times over the years, and enjoy it more each time.

Buy The Bone People from Amazon or Book Depository now

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

The second New Zealand book to win the Man Booker Prize was Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, a 1000-page mystery set in the goldfields of the South Island’s West Coast. Walter Moody arrives in Hokitika, ready to stake his claim and make his fortune, only to find himself in the midst of a series of mysteries concerning a group of men in the town. With intrigue, prostitution, drugs and murder, there is plenty to keep the pages turning.

Buy The Luminaries from Amazon or Book Depository now

Penguin History of New Zealand by Michael King

Widely recognised as one of the best books on New Zealand history, Michael King’s Penguin History of New Zealand details the country’s story from the earliest days of Maori settlement through to the early 21st Century. The definitive guide for anything you want to know about New Zealand’s past, and the people who inhabited it.

Buy Penguin History of New Zealand from Amazon or Book Depository now

Wild Pork and Watercress by Barry Crump

Having just finished re-watching Taika Waititi’s film, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, I’m feeling the urge to read the book on which it was based – Wild Pork and Watercress. In it, Ricky Baker, an overweight Māori boy who is in danger of being taken back into care by Social Welfare (for the umpteenth time), and his Uncle Hec, a disgruntled and emotionally distant Pakeha man, decide to eschew conventional society, and head into the Ureweras to live off the land. It’s a heart-warming story of two outsiders, written in Barry Crump’s famed laconic style. Although Crump’s A Good Keen Man would generally be considered his most famous work, capturing the idiosyncrasies of the Kiwi bloke, the rising star of Taika Waititi’s filmmaking is sure to bring Wild Pork and Watercress back into the limelight as well.

Buy Wild Pork and Watercress from Amazon or Book Depository now

An Angel at my Table by Janet Frame

Although An Angel at my Table is actually the second volume in Janet Frame’s three-part autobiography, the three books – To the Is-Land, An Angel at my Table, and The Envoy from Mirror City are often sold together under this title. Detailing the author’s life from her childhood in Dunedin, through poverty, mental illness, and grief, to her position as one of New Zealand’s most successful authors. She spent years in and out of mental hospitals, wrongly diagnosed as schizophrenic, and was only saved from a lobotomy by winning a major literary prize. Throughout it all, her fears, insecurities, and candour ring through. Janet Frame was generally a novelist, but her autobiography is also a work of genius.

To explore her fiction work, I recommend Owls Do Cry as a first stop.

Buy An Angel at my Table from Amazon or Book Depository now

Plumb by Maurice Gee

The first book I read by Maurice Gee was a young adult novel called The Fat Man. To be honest, I don’t remember a whole lot about it, but I’m left with a sense that it was really creepy – and a brief skim of the book’s Goodreads reviews suggests that I’m not alone. Maurice Gee’s work often contains powerful characters that leave the reader with a visceral response, and Plumb is no different. Based on the author’s grandfather, George Plumb is a hard man. Just ask anyone who’s met him. He has strong opinions, and an austere nature. As the book details his life and family relationships, the reader is given an insider’s look into the history and politics of New Zealand in the early 20th Century that, although fiction, appears no less real than Michael King’s history (above).

Buy Plumb from Amazon or Book Depository now

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