Through the eyes of children: debut tales win Ngaio Marsh Awards

Fresh voices came to the fore at WORD Christchurch Spring Festival on Saturday afternoon as Becky Manawatu and RWR McDonald were named the winners of the 2020 Ngaio Marsh Awards.

Both winners were first-time novelists, and while their winning books were different in many ways, each was told in large part from the perspective of young children dealing with loss and violence in small-town New Zealand, each included a rich cast of diverse characters, and each expertly blended lighter moments with dark events in tense tales that could make readers gasp and laugh.

Manawatu (Ngāi Tahu) scooped the Best Novel prize for Aué (Makaro Press), a novel infused with domestic violence and gang life, told from the perspectives of eight-year-old Arama, his teenage brother Tauriki, and young woman Jade. She’s the first debut author to win Best Novel since 2010. 

"A breath-taking expose of lives lived on the margins, and the fight for redemption and absolution,” said the judges. “Manawatu doesn’t use crime as a plot device but shows it woven into the fabric of her characters’ lives, defining them, sometimes destroying them, and serving as a perverse unifier.”

Aué joins This Mortal Boy by Fiona Kidman as the only novels to have won both the Ngaio Marsh Award and the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.

RWR McDonald grew up on a sheep and deer farm in South Otago, and now lives in Melbourne with his two daughters and extended rainbow family. He won the 2020 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best First Novel for The Nancys (Allen & Unwin), an exuberant small-town murder mystery where eleven-year-old Tippy Chan teams with her visiting uncle and his boyfriend to solve the murder of her teacher.

“Hilarious and inventive; the dynamic between the young protagonist and the adult characters is unusual and special,” said the judges. “A clever hat-tip to one of the most indelible female characters in the genre, and a story that blends crime and humour in unexpected ways.”

It’s a little surreal to realise this is the tenth anniversary of the Ngaio Marsh Awards, said founder Craig Sisterson. The awards were established in 2010 to celebrate excellence in local crime, mystery, thriller, and suspense writing. Sisterson noted that the Ngaios were modelled somewhat on the Hammett Prize in North America, which has been won by the likes of Margaret Atwood and focuses on ‘literary excellence’ in novels entwined with crime, so isn’t restricted to detective novels or whodunnits.

“We’ve been blessed to have some extraordinary books to consider and celebrate over the past decade, and this year has further added to the growing depth and diversity of local crime writing.”

Becky Manawatu received a trophy and $1,000 courtesy of WORD Christchurch. McDonald won a trophy and cash prize from the Ngaio Marsh Awards. “We feel very fortunate to have been able to hold a real life event before a live audience to celebrate our finalists and winners this year,” said Sisterson. “Huge thanks to Rachael King and WORD Christchurch for all their hard work in such a challenging year, as well as for their ongoing support every year since we launched in 2010.”