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In my English class back at high school, we had the opportunity to analyse poems by Bill Manhire as part of our close reading practice. It was great to hone our analytical skills with the works of Manhire, an award-winning New Zealand poet, academic, and writer who was named the Te Mata Estate New Zealand Poet Laureate in 1997. His name was written in bold on a poster on our classroom wall, situated beside posters honouring other New Zealand greats like the Impressionist short story writer Katherine Mansfield, the poet James K. Baxter and the writer Maurice Gee.
The Stories of Bill Manhire, published by Victoria University Press, is a collection of short stories taken from The New Land: A Picture Book (1990), South Pacific (1994), and Songs of My Life (1996). Added delights to this assemblage of literary gemstones are the entertaining choose-your-own-adventurenovella, ‘The Brain of Katherine Mansfield’ (published in 1988, with illustrations by Gregory O’Brien) and the memoir Under the Influence (2003).
Manhire’s stories exhibit unique structure and a genuine Kiwi voice. New Zealand and global histories form the contextual backdrop of most of the narratives. I particularly admire the way Manhire glides between local and global history, from tales of New Zealand pubs and railways, to political and historical events such as Queen Elizabeth II’s 1953-54 visit to New Zealand. In one of his short stories, Manhire imagines the last days of Robert Louis Stevenson, author of the famous novel, Treasure Island, who died in Vailima, Samoa. His incorporation of Samoan language, culture and mythology provides cultural vibrancy throughout the text.
My favourite short story was ‘Some questions I am frequently asked’. This piece, amusingly formatted Q&A style, pokes fun at the public life of a writer. The structure of the text mirrors a conversation at a book signing. ‘The Poet’s Wife and The Ghost who talks also’ concern the writer’s lifestyle and social relationships, treating these with humour and sarcasm.
In sum, Manhire’s writing is comical, imaginative and observational. His short stories are magnificent products and imprints of the culture that enlivens the land of swedes, sheep and deep thinkers.
Reviewed by Azariah Alfante
The Stories of Bill Manhire
by Bill Manhire
Published by Victoria University Press