The Penguin Book of New Zealand Contemporary Stories

  edited by Paula Morris

Penguin Group (NZ) 2009

Awards: Julian Novitz won the 2008 Katherine Mansfield Short Fiction Award for his story, Three Couples.

Editor: Paula Morris, of English and Ngati Wai descent, is the author of three novels: Queen of Beauty (2002), Hibiscus Coast (2005), and Trendy But Casual (2007), all published by Penguin. Her first short-story collection, Forbidden Cities (2008), was a regional finalist in the 2009 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.

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"He needed her love to be hard, something to batter himself against, to bear cuts which would sting poisonously; how else could he tell it was alive, when it grew so imperceptibly that whole genealogies could swim among its brightly coloured branches without once seeing it move?"
(From The Sea as Past by Bernard Steeds)

Reviewed by Michelle Tandoc-Pichereau

In editing this anthology, Paula Morris had a mission: Examine whether or not short fiction flourished in New Zealand over the past decade.

Morris had some misgivings. As she writes in her intro, the writing courses and literary contests that abound tend to limit artistic innovation. Publishers seem to give more weight to novels, and reader support for journals that do publish short stories is underwhelming. Nevertheless, looking at the display of talent Morris has put together, one can see that despite the challenges, short fiction in New Zealand is thriving.

All 31 stories, written by a mix of established and emerging authors, speak of New Zealand, directly or indirectly. But barring specific cultural references, they could easily be talking about the U.S., or England, or Canada—really, any country that has sheltered migrants, that has struggled with issues of social class and hierarchy, that has known the loneliness and longing of its people. And what country can claim that it hasn’t?

Like most of us, the book’s characters hunger for change—be it the housewife tired of the idyllic life in Barbara Anderson’s Real Beach Weather, the daughter who travels the world in search of "home" in Fiona Farrell’s Overseas Trip, or even the alien family searching for a better life on earth, in The New Neighbors by Tim Jones.

But like most of us find out, the grass isn’t always greener next door. In Fellow Citizens by Owen Marshall, a Croatian refugee forced to seek asylum in New Zealand just didn’t have the heart to rebuild his life again, and has settled for a "more immediate, ad hoc and temporary existence." As the narrator says:
"Maybe that’s what it’s like to be dispossessed of your country and your career, to lose your position in your own community and find yourself undervalued in a new one."
One doesn’t have to migrate to feel undervalued or out of place, however. We experience it enough at work, as in Jo Randerson’s Our New Boss, or Elizabeth Smither’s Bonding. We experience it in our own communities, as in David Geary’s Gary Manawatu [1964-2008]: Death of a Fence Post-Modernist. We even experience it among family and friends, as in Three Couples by Julian Novitz, or Coming Down Off the Hill by Kirsty Gunn.

But really, the stories in the book are a lot more complex and hearty than what can be summed up in a few words. And as with any collection, some pieces stand out more than others—a matter of personal taste. My favorites include the unconventionally-written Three Couples, William Brandt’s Rat (a short piece that speaks volumes), and the 45-pager Ask the Posts of the House by Witi Ihimaera (a commentary on family, hierarchy and love).

Of course, no matter how good the book is, it would be foolish to think that the literary or cultural portrait that we see here is complete. Anthologies are at the mercy of an editor’s choices, and as Morris acknowledged, she didn’t strive for political correctness or diversity. Her sole criteria was quality—the ability of each story to move, provoke, excite, entertain, challenge and basically insinuate itself into the reader’s memory.

As such, we don’t see any work from writers of Indian or Chinese descent (an essential part of New Zealand’s cultural melting pot), and the dominant Pacific presence is Samoan. Which leaves this reader wondering: What does that say about the climate or state of short story writing for the communities excluded or underrepresented in the anthology?

Still, if quality and staying power is the goal, then Morris has done well. At 447 pages (including bios and acknowledgements), The Penguin Book of Contemporary New Zealand Short Stories has kept me absorbed and entertained throughout. I don’t only recommend it; I look forward to returning to it again and again.

Read a story from this collection on Penguin Group NZ

Michelle Tandoc-Pichereau wants to explore the world by foot, pen and lens. Raised in Manila, she lived for a time in Los Angeles before moving to France. A Pushcart Prize nominee and 2008 Sean O’Faolain Short Story Competition finalist, she has stories in places like The Humanist and Southword.
Michelle's other Short Reviews: Matty Stansfield "Donut Holes: Sticky Pieces of Fictionalized Reality"

Stephen Shieber "Being Normal"

Discovering a Comet and Other Microfictions
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