The West Coast – New Zealand’s unique literary setting

We woke yesterday morning to the news that Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries had achieved the rare accolade of making the Man Booker Prize shortlist of six; now the literati of the nation must wait for the judges’ final decision on October 15.

The Luminaries is one of the favourites to win this year’s Man Booker Prize. The Guardian review called it, ‘‘a dazzling feat of a novel, the golden nugget in this year's Man Booker long list.'” The Luminaries is the third book by a New Zealand author to make the coveted Booker shortlist. Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones was shortlisted in 2008. The only local author to win the prize is of course Keri Hulme for The Bone People in 1985. 

Eleanor Catton signing at the Unity Books Wellington launch of The Luminaries. Photo copyright Matthew Bialostocki

Paula Green, reviewing The Luminaries in NZ Herald said: “This novel - a tangled web of involvement in a tangled web of events - is as much about storytelling as it is about anything else.

“It is set in Hokitika in 1866, when Walter Moody arrives to make his fortune in the goldfields. He finds himself in his hotel bar eavesdropping on 12 local men who have met in secret to discuss unsolved crimes (a murder, a missing person, stolen goods, a beaten woman). Soon, he too is embedded in the story.”

Both The Luminaries and The Bone People are set on the West Coast of the South Island. Coincidence or fate? What is it about the West Coast that makes it such an iconic setting for amazing literature?

Fergus Barrowman said, ‘The West Coast has a distinctive 19th century history and a community network that works for storytelling, and adding the exposure to the elements you get on the Coast, it makes a perfect setting for fiction.’

Going Coastal
Booksellers web editor Sarah Forster spent her childhood and teenage years between our West Coast and Western Australia: she really is a coal miner’s daughter! “People tend to think of the West Coast as a special unspoiled place, that may be why people are drawn to write about it.”
Also asked about the character of the Coast was book blogger Graham Beattie, who speculated “I guess it is to do with the landscape, the wildness of West Coast weather, the history of mining, the isolation and the fact that until the Haast Pass opened in the 1960’s there was no road access in the south.”

Graham is right, roads to the Coast are limited – Arthur’s Pass opened as a road only in 1916 and can still be closed by weather, as can the Lewis Pass road, constructed during the 1930’s depression.
The book that became a tourist trail
One of our best-loved and top-selling novels of recent years is Jenny Pattrick’s The Denniston Rose, an appealing adventure story with a gutsy young heroine and an only-on-the-West Coast setting: a small mining town at the top of a steep incline reached only by coal trucks.

The Denniston Rose, published in 2003, is one of this country’s most popular bestsellers, with 60,000+ copies sold to date. It has a sequel, Heart of Coal, and another novel, Caught in the Current, a spin-off on the lives of two of the adult characters in the other novels. The effect of the book was such that tourists started to go to the mine area to see the historic places mentioned in the series, and a trail guide has attracted many to follow the Denniston Trail.

Harriet Allan, Random House NZ’s publisher for the books says the titles, now re-jacketed, are still selling. “Both books are set in a specific part of the country at a time when we had a different lifestyle which has now completely disappeared. It is a picture of a fantastic working community by an author who is a fantastic writer about community, and how the machinery of the past operated.

“We’ve now got that depth of history in our own stories, and the Denniston Trail now brings in tourist dollars,” says Harriet. “It is amazing that fiction can do these things!

The Westport Brass Band, featured in The Denniston Rose, plays at the opening of the Denniston Trail in 2012

Books of the Past
Bill Pearson’s Coal Flat, focusing on characters and events in a small West Coast coal mining town, was published in 1963 and is Pearson’s only novel, though he was a well-known literary commentator and essayist at the time. With the recent publication of Paul Millar’s biography of Pearson, No Fretful Sleepers, renewed attention has been drawn to the book, believed to be set in the mining community of Blackball.

Keri Hulme’s novel The Bone People, is unmistakably set on the remote beaches of the Coast, with the changeable weather of South Westland. First published by women’s collective Spiral and later picked up by local and international publishing houses, The Bone People was something of a cause célèbre when it won the Booker Prize in 1985. (One of the judging panel was said to have disagreed – emphatically – with the decision.)

A more recently published novel set on the West Coast is Charlotte Randall’s Hokitika Town (Penguin, 2012), set in the Gold Rush of 1865. It is endearingly told through the eyes and language of young Maori orphan Halfie who has ended up in Hokitika scrambling for survival by washing dishes and doing errands. In her review of the book for the NZ Herald, Paula Green says “He is the epitome of goodness and views the adult world of drunkenness, double-crossing and lust through his innocent childhood filters.” This is a treasure, a title perhaps less fēted than it should be.

Amy Head launches Tough at Unity Books Wellington. Photo copyright Matthew Bialostocki

Earlier this year, The Luminaries’ publisher, VUP, launched a book of stories by Amy Head set on the West Coast and appropriately titled Tough. It will be the perfect answer to customers wanting more West Coast literature. NZ Book Council says, ‘The book dexterously shifts between present and historical experience, and dramatically focuses the West Coast landscape. The book also ushers into its borders those living on the margins of society.’

Fergus Barrowman also drew The Read’s attention to Lawrence Patchett’s I Got His Blood on Me, short stories including many with a West Coast focus, and winner of a Best First Book Award for Fiction at the 2013 New Zealand Post Book Awards.

More of the Coast to come
VUP have certainly got the Coast in their sights at the moment. Next month sees the launch of Pip Adams’ novel I’m Working on a Building, for which they have high expectations. The book takes the concept of building an exact replica of Dubai’s Burj al Khalifa on the West Coast, and tells the story from the point of view of Catherine, the engineer in charge of making sure it all works.

Four Coast-related VUP titles all in the news? We asked Fergus Barrowman why he thought that was, ’There’s been lots of interest in high country stories. I guess this spills over into fiction and non-fiction about distant regions.‘

West Coast book specialists
Doug truman Greymouth paperplusDoug Truman of Paper Plus Greymouth is one of the senior statesmen of Kiwi bookselling, and one with a dry sense of humour. He jokes that he’s been in the trade so long, he’s seen the wheel turn three times. And as for retiring – “Yesterday, if I could.”

The Luminaries has been successful for the store, with the original stock sold out and they are not sure if their needs will be covered by the second print run, as he’s increased the re-order. He worries people will be buying the e-book rather than the hard copy.

Coast titles he recommends include Tony Kokshoorn’s The Golden Grey: West Coasters 1860 -2010. “The mayor drew on newspaper clippings,” he grumbles, but even at $85 the title has sold well for the store. Another recommended book is Golden Prospects, a book about the Chinese on the West Coast of New Zealand during the gold-rush days of the late 1860's, written by Julia Bradshaw, former curator of the tourist attraction gold town Shantytown - a title that deserves more recognition, Doug believes.

Take Note Hokitika try to keep a range of current fiction and nonfiction titles covering the West Coast in stock for local and international visitors, says store owners Claudia Landis and her husband Bruce Watson.

Her husband Bruce Watson has a special passion for out-of-print titles concerning the Coast and their Hokitika shop boasts an antique cabinet that is first point of call for many locals and visitors. To satisfy the national demand for in print West Coast titles Bruce and Claudia run a specialist website West Coast Books, a stock-carrying website for Coast titles –

As yet, there are no plans to put Bruce’s out-of-print and antiquarian titles online, “Because they sell so fast,” explains Claudia.

Claudia told The Read that there is a big range of Coast titles over all sorts of fields, including hunting, geology and poetry. “There was even a Mills and Boon writer who set her romances on the Coast,” said Claudia, “but sadly they are no longer available.” One genre so far uncovered for the Coast is who-dunnits; but tick that too: you will find Coast-set mysteries by writer Trish McCormack among their stock.

Be in to win a copy of The Luminaries, as well as Tough, by Amy Head; and I'm working on a building, by Pip Adam.