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

Pip Adam. Photo/Victoria Birkinshaw

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.

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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

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.