Why Pip Adam deserved to win the big prize at the Ockham Book Awards

by Anna Smaill / 18 May, 2018
Pip Adam. Photo/Victoria Birkinshaw

Pip Adam. Photo/Victoria Birkinshaw

RelatedArticlesModule - Pip Adam Ockham Book Award

Anna Smaill, a judge in this year’s Ockham NZ Book Awards, on why Pip Adam’s The New Animals deserved to win the richest prize of the night.

It was a privilege to read the 50-odd books that were eligible for the Acorn Foundation prize for fiction this year.

Entering the judging process, I expected tough negotiation and compromise; I expected to fight my corner, and when necessary, to yield with good grace. What surprised me was that, if pressed, we probably could have picked a winner in the first minutes of our initial meeting.

In the final Skype conference with the international judge Alan Taylor, our decision was likewise unanimous. One novel bubbled to the top of every list. There was no pragmatism or compromise in our decision to award Pip Adam’s The New Animals the Acorn Prize at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.

The Wellington literary community is notoriously small and – full disclosure – I’m happy to count Pip Adam as a friend. But the certainty of the judging panel was unambiguous. It’s a decision that will, however, probably surprise some. On publication, the novel was met with bemusement, perplexity and even distaste by a handful of reviewers. An article published in this magazine, for example, noted the opacity of the novel’s prose, “hyper-attention to quotidian detail”, even the superfluity of characters whose names began with “D”. Another observation levelled as critique was that Adam’s central characters were difficult to relate to or, indeed, like.

I don’t think the judges would disagree on any of these points. However, Adam’s novel rose to the top of this year’s pool because of these qualities, not in spite of them. Her uncompromising style pushes the reader up against the grain and texture of experience. Her novel captures what it is like to be bored, to be perplexed, and the way in which existence can feel both glacial and mercurial – sometimes all at once. In other words, it reveals a novelist who sees literature not just as entertainment, but as a way of making sense of the world.

Anna Smaill. Photo/Simon Young

Anna Smaill. Photo/Simon Young

The New Animals is fiction that doesn’t sit still, that shifts and shimmers as you read. It is in equal measure steely and self-delighting; it has little mercy.

The commitment that distinguishes the novel’s style is also visible in the originality of its subject matter and structure. The book looks with deep seriousness at the ostensibly trivial worlds of fashion and hairdressing. It scours the painful places where inner and outer lives meet. It examines the juncture between human and animal experience, and the relationship between waste and beauty. It is willing to leap into the surreal in order to capture the weird violence and strangeness of being alive in this post-colonial island nation in the 21st century.

What we, as judges, were lucky enough to agree on is that these qualities are more interesting, and in fact more important, than those of relatability, ease, or escapism. What distinguishes the book – and won Adam the $50,000 prize – is the urgency of art.

Novelist and poet Anna Smaill’s The Chimes was long-listed for the 2015 Man Booker Prize. She is a lecturer at Victoria University’s school of English, film, theatre and media studies.

This article was first published in the May 26, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

Latest

Why Marlborough, the jewel of NZ's wine industry, is your next destination
My low-rent version of Sisyphus in hell
109522 2019-08-15 00:00:00Z Humour

My low-rent version of Sisyphus in hell

by Michelle Langstone

Michelle Langstone on being injured.

Read more
Requests denied, delayed and redacted
109441 2019-08-14 00:00:00Z Politics

Requests denied, delayed and redacted

by Mike White

Frustrations of the fourth estate.

Read more
Stats NZ could need years to regain public trust
109503 2019-08-14 00:00:00Z Politics

Stats NZ could need years to regain public trust

by Craig McCulloch

The census botch-up has prompted fears the debacle will do long-lasting damage to the public's trust in statistics.

Read more
Gentleman Jack: Suranne Jones on the remarkable Anne Lister
109439 2019-08-14 00:00:00Z Television

Gentleman Jack: Suranne Jones on the remarkable An…

by The Listener

A historical drama about a 19th-century landowner who secretly diarised her relationships with women comes to Neon.

Read more
Hannibal Lecter's creator returns with Cari Mora
108448 2019-08-14 00:00:00Z Books

Hannibal Lecter's creator returns with Cari Mora

by Craig Sisterson

In his first post-Hannibal Lecter book, Thomas Harris heads for Elmore Leonard territory.

Read more
Kiwis in the kitchen: A bite-sized history of NZ cuisine
109468 2019-08-14 00:00:00Z Food

Kiwis in the kitchen: A bite-sized history of NZ c…

by Lauraine Jacobs

Lauraine Jacobs traces the evolution of eating in NZ, from the spartan diet of the war years to the vibrant multi-ethnic melting pot of cuisines...

Read more
The chef bringing the world's cuisine to Kāeo
109526 2019-08-14 00:00:00Z Food

The chef bringing the world's cuisine to Kāeo

by Jenny Ling

Anna Valentine holds cooking workshops in the kitchen of her century-old kauri villa in Kāeo.

Read more