Edited by Fiona Farrell
Random House, NZ$35 | Reviewed by Amy Brown

FIONA FARRELL, recipient of the Prime Minister’s Award for Literature for her contributions to New Zealand fiction, has chosen for this collection a diverse and strong array of short stories and excerpts from novels by writers ranging from brand new to fully established. Despite the uninspiring cover (a photographed brooding sky and tussock-covered sand dune suggests stereotypically dark and provincial New Zealand tales rather than the far from clichéd variety the book has to offer) Farrell’s intelligent and enthusiastic introduction and the high standard of her choices make this an enjoyable and thorough showcase of our country’s recent fiction.

In Farrell’s introduction, she uses the lyrics of a song about a soldier caught with a pack of cards in church, whose excuse is that each of the cards reminds him about a facet of Christianity (the ace, that there is but one god, etcetera), to explain her editing and selection process. Each of the stories in this collection reminds Farrell about a facet of fiction, and she generously summarises what that facet or characteristic is for each story she’s chosen. Some are patchworks, others satires; some are laconically Kiwi, others “a kind of exquisite music”; some are teasing page-turners, other subversive and political. Deliberately assembling a collection of obviously differing works – often only sharing the fact that they are by New Zealand writers, and of a high standard (there were perhaps two pieces out of twenty that were even slightly disappointing) – is an effective means of dispelling assumptions about a nation’s writing being always and only one way.

That said, interesting echoes of phrases and ideas run throughout this alphabetically ordered collection. For example, the story following one titled ‘The Bugger’ has “bugger” in the first paragraph. These accidental resonances between otherwise differing works of fiction give a subtle, seemingly inevitable, coherence to the collection as a whole. While this is not enough on which to base a sweeping generalisation about New Zealand fiction, it does shed a little light on how a writer’s (or indeed anyone’s) context affects their language.

From the twenty stories there were several highlights. Paula Morris’s ‘Red Christmas’ about a sister and her brothers foraging on Te Atatu Road amongst inorganic rubbish put out for collection, is a vivid and memorable precursor to her novel Hibiscus Coast. Sue Orr’s ‘Velocity’, tells, with dark humour, the story of how a homing pigeon ruined a Tokoroa couple’s romance. Funnier still, Sue McCauley’s ‘My Friend Freddy’ does for a lamb what Anna Sewell did for Black Beauty. With characteristic attention to detail and poetic diction, Tracey Slaughter’s ‘a working model of the sky’ convincingly describes the effects of a traumatic childhood memory. And Julian Novitz, writer of aforementioned ‘The Bugger’, creates an extraordinary level of tension in his story about a police surveillance specialist, or “bugger”. Also worthy of mention are the stories of the Bank of New Zealand Katherine Mansfield Award winning writers, Charlotte Grimshaw and Carl Nixon, and veterans C. K. Stead, Fiona Kidman and Witi Ihimaera.

When the highlights of a collection includes half the book, that’s a fairly good indication of its quality. Look past the dry, predictable cover image, and you’ll be pleasantly rewarded.