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Bookshelves | © Pixabay
Bookshelves | © Pixabay

13 Classic Books From New Zealand

Picture of Thalita Alves
Updated: 4 November 2017

Love your literature? Lusting for New Zealand? Then you’re going to adore this list. Kiwi authors from the past and present have made some great contributions to the literary world — even gaining international recognition for their efforts. If you want to close in on the local classics, here are 13 books to add to your must-read list.

Died in the Wool (1945), by Ngaio Marsh

Ngaio Marsh was one of the greatest crime writers of her time. In Died in The Wool, the author takes things back to her Kiwi roots to produce one of her most intriguing murder mysteries. Set on a South Island sheep station in 1942, the story begins with the disappearance of Flossie Rubrick, a distinguished woman who simply vanishes after going into a woolshed to practise a speech, only to turn up three months later dead and bundled in some woolen bales.

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Died in the Wool, Ngaio Marsh | © Jeremy Crawshaw/Flickr

In a German Pension (1911), by Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield is one of New Zealand’s most prolific writers,  and short fiction is where she got her Modernist acclaim. Mansfield’s first short story collection, In a German Pension, is composed of a series of satirical sketches most notable for their clever humour, vulnerability and meticulous attention to detail. Pre-World War I Europe is the main setting for these stories, with a contrast between the Germans and the British being a constant throughout.

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Katherine Mansfield | © Archives New Zealand/Flickr

The Haunting (1982), by Margaret Mahy

The Haunting is a fantasy novel by New Zealand children’s author Margaret Mahy. The book earned Mahy a Carnegie Medal the year it was published, and a film adaptation (The Haunting of Barney Palmer) was released in 1987. Its story is centred around a shy 8-year-old boy named Barry Palmer who discovers that he and his family have a powerful connection to the spiritual world.

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The Haunting, Margaret Mahy | © J. M. Dent/Wikimedia Commons

Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy (1983), by Lynley Dodd

This is the first (and most famous) book out of Lynley Dodd’s Hairy Maclary series. For those unfamiliar with the illustrated tales, Hairy Maclary is a Scottish Terrier dog who gets in all kinds of shenanigans with his friends. In Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy, readers are introduced to the characteristic rhyming patterns and colourful illustrations that have made these books a favourite among Kiwis of all generations.

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Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy | © Mallinson Rendel Publishers Ltd/Wikimedia Commons

Owls do Cry (1957), by Janet Frame

Largely touted as being New Zealand’s first literary great, the modernist Owls do Cry offers a clear depiction of 1950s New Zealand while weaving in the struggles of its main characters. Janet Frame’s story focuses on the Withers siblings and their ongoing battles with financial instability, mental illness, disability, grief and the simple human desire to find a sense of belonging.

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Owls do Cry, Janet Frame | © Wikimedia Commons

Plumb (1978), by Maurice Gee

Maurice Gee was awarded the 1978 James Tait Memorial Prize for his classic novel, Plumb. It is considered one of the finest novels written by a New Zealand author. This is the first installment of a trilogy, introducing readers to irascible clergyman George Plumb, whose sense of morals and self-righteousness are tested as he comes face-to-face with some of his toughest life decisions.

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A Quote from one of Maurice Gee’s Books in Wellington | © Brett Taylor/Flickr

Jerusalem Daybook (1971), by James K Baxter

In the 1960s, New Zealand poet James K Baxter formed a commune near the Whanganui River in Jerusalem (Hiruhārama), where he lived intermittently until his death in 1972. During his commune stay, he penned two major poetry books — Jerusalem sonnets (1970) and Autumn testament (1972) — and one piece of prose, Jerusalem Daybook. The book captures Baxter’s thoughts on life, society and his home community.  

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An Excerpt of James K Baxter’s poem “The Maori Jesus” | © William Stadtwald Demchick/Wikimedia Commons

Leaves of the Banyan Tree (1979), by Albert Wendt

Albert Wendt is one of the most influential New Zealand-based authors of Pacific descent. Leaves of the Banyan Tree won the 1980 New Zealand Wattie Book of the Year Award and has since been been widely regarded as one of the greatest works of Pacific literature. The epic tale follows a family in Western Samoa and spans across three generations to explore significant themes like colonialism, corruption, greed and exploitation.   

Once Were Warriors (1990), by Alan Duff

Once Were Warriors is a bestselling novel which spurred a movie with the same name. Alan Duff’s raw depiction of domestic violence and the social struggles of the Maori population is what makes this book a force to be reckoned with. The story follows the Heke family and conveys the relationship between tradition and an overall loss of a sense of place.

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Once Were Warriors, Alan Duff | © Wikimedia Commons

No Ordinary Sun (1964), by Hone Tuwhare

No Ordinary Sun was the first poetry collection to be published by a Maori author. Not only was this book groundbreaking for bringing a distinctive Maori voice to what was, at the time, a Pakeha (European) domain, it also struck a chord with readers because of its powerful use of imagery, the political undertones, and its melding of indigenous perspectives with Shakespearean and Biblical references.

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Hone Tuwhare Plaque, Dunedin | © Bryce Edwards/Flickr

Potiki (1986), by Patricia Grace

Potiki (meaning ‘the last born child’) is the second novel published by internationally acclaimed Maori author Patricia Grace. The story won the New Zealand Book Award for Fiction in 1987 and has since been translated into several languages. Its main character, the prophet child Tokowaru-i-te-Marama, shares his people’s fight against the big-money developers who are putting the coastal community’s life in jeopardy.

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A Quote From Patricia Grace’s “Cousins” | © Brett Taylor/Flickr

The Book of Fame (2000), by Lloyd Jones

Lloyd Jones is better known for his Booker Prize shortlisted novel Mister Pipbut this is another work of his that’s greatly revered as a contemporary classic. The Book of Fame is a fictional take on the 1925 New Zealand rugby tour of Britain, where the All Blacks earned their reputation for being strong contenders in the country’s national sport. The novel tells the story of the young players and their quick rise to fame upon landing on lesser-known shores.

The Vintner’s Luck (1998), by Elizabeth Knox

One of the most famous works by award-winning New Zealand novelist Elizabeth Knox. The Vintner’s Luck is an unconventional love story set in 17th Century France. A young vintner comes face-to-face with a mysterious angelic figure, and the angel becomes his main counsel and protector as life’s tribulations, from marriage to the impact of the Napoleonic Wars, unravel around him.

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Elizabeth Knox | © NZatFrankfurt/Flickr