Ockham Shortlist 2020: A Mistake by Carl Shuker

Below is an excerpt from the novel A Mistake by Carl Shuker, which is shortlisted for this year’s Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards

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About the writer:

Carl Shuker is the author of four other novels – The Method Actors (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2005), winner of the Prize in Modern Letters in 2006; The Lazy Boys (Counterpoint, 2006); Three Novellas for a Novel (2008; Mansfield Road Press, 2011) and Anti Lebanon (Counterpoint, 2013).

A graduate of the University of Canterbury, with a Masters in Creative Writing from Victoria University of Wellington, Carl lived in Tokyo on and off for many years, then London, where he was an editor for the British medical Journal for seven years.  He has participated in festivals in New Zealand and Australia and was Writer-in-Residence at Victoria University in 2013.

He lives in Wellington with his wife and two children.

About the book:

Elizabeth Taylor is a surgeon at a city hospital, a gifted, driven and rare woman excelling in a male-dominated culture.

One day, while operating on a young woman in a critical condition, something goes gravely wrong.

Carl’s latest novel is a medical thriller about human fallibility and the dangerous hunger for black and white answers in a world of exponential complications and nuance. Pantograph Punch describes how in A Mistake Carl ‘turns his attention to the theme of human error and how actions can echo and distort in memory and consequence … absorbing and difficult to put down.’ On Carl’s work overall the NZ Listener wrote ‘It’s difficult to convey here the thrill of Shuker’s writing, with its up-to-the-minute feel, its endless audacity … with its defiant difficulty, sly ambition and writing more than sharp enough to live up to its own hype’.

“You’d think Carl Shuker couldn’t get any better, but A Mistake is the novel at its visceral and emotional best. This is the most compelling book I’ve read in years. It pulls you along at breakneck speed through questions of failure, exposure and manners. Shuker reinvents the form with every novel and A Mistake is a masterpiece which feels more like a body than a book – the life pumps and glugs and flexes inside its pages.” – Pip Adam



(Victoria University Press)



The flaw


She woke at six, alone.

She lay there in the half dark. Then she got up and changed into gym gear, her thigh-long tights and a sports bra, and went into the living room. Atticus lay on the huge leather pouf Jessica had delivered with him. He watched her pass. Just his eyes. Wary, sad crescents of white below the dark brown irises.

Outside. Clean smell of the bush, and damp. A frighted blackbird rose from the barbecue, flared its wings and disappeared over the fence into the neighbour’s backyard. She’d forgotten socks and she went back in and put on her work ones and took an apple as she came back through the kitchen.

Atticus lay and watched her.

Down the side of the house she stood in her sock feet on the dry concrete under the flax and ate the apple down and pitched the core up the back. She turned and crouched and unlocked the padlock and crawled in under the house and came back out in gumboots and overalls with the hammer and jimmy bar in one hand, and in the other a plastic Four Square bag with the Makita electric drill and drill bits along with five old unused borer bombs she’d found in the tool cabinet and then she went back inside the house.

In the living room she dragged the couch out from the north-facing wall. She unplugged the TV and router and the modem and dragged the chest on which the TV and electronics sat away from the wall too.

The flaw was at eye level. The previous owners had re-gibbed this wall and this wall only for some reason and the plasterboard was a decent job so she’d left it. But at eye level was the nub of a 5-millimetre bolt, sticking out just enough. The wall got no direct sun so the bolt cast no direct shadow. It was ignorable.

She laid down an old sheet as a drop cloth and laid the tools on it and put on her glasses and looked at the nub. It was sheared off at a slight angle and there was putty and paint around to smooth it off. She reached to it and she caressed it. Feeling the angle of the shear, where there might be purchase for the drill bit.

Then she picked up the hammer and she hit it as hard as she could.

The whole wall vibrated and the sash window rattled in the frame. Atticus laboured up from the leather pouf and walked out of the room with his head down and his tail between his legs.

She leaned in to examine the bolt. The paint had come off the end but it hadn’t moved.

She guessed the size of the drill bit by eye and compared it to the nub. The chuck was tied with string to the trigger guard of the drill the way her father taught her, and she used it to screw the bit in tight and looked around for her ear muffs but she’d left them downstairs. She held the drill up high and straight and seated the tip against the nub of bolt and slowly squeezed the trigger. The drill hummed. She squeezed it tighter and the bit turned on the steel. She stopped and looked at the nub. It had made no impression. She squared her stance, raised her elbow, seated the bit and squeezed the trigger and leaned into it. The drill hummed, and the bit turned slowly then faster and then it slid off the bolt and punched through the gib. A neat hole. She tried again, adjusted her grip on the drill, leaning in. The drill hummed and the bit turned and then it jumped off the bolt again and through the plasterboard beside the first hole.

‘Fucker,’ she said aloud. She put the drill down and picked up the hammer and beat holes through the gib in a circle a rough metre around the bolt and then tore off the piece of gib hanging from the bolt nub and threw it behind her and stepped back.

It was a coach screw, 5-millimetre diameter galv steel sawed off as close to the wall as they could get their hacksaw, then filed down. It was impossible to know how deep in the tōtara stud. Not enough sticking out to get at it with the vice grips. She took up the hammer and bashed it a few more times and the windows rattled and clouds of borer dust rose in the room. It went no deeper. ‘Why don’t I use you as a fucking coathook,’ she said. Then she rolled up the Afghan rug and pulled the TV and couch up against the south wall and smashed out the gib on the rest of the wall with the hammer and tore it down bare-handed and threw the pieces on the floor behind her as the room filled with dust. She went round with the jimmy bar snapping the heads off the thin gib screws and then she banged the sheared-off stubs into the timber with the hammer and more and more borer dust rose and then she went back to the bolt and looked at it.

She replaced the drill bit with a smaller diameter bit and tightened it up with the chuck. She drilled 20 neat holes in the stud in a circle around the nub. The drill kicked and screamed when it hit the galv steel and she swore. Then she took up the hammer and bashed and bashed the bolt side to side and it barely moved so deep in the wood was it buried. She swung and hit and missed and dented the timber into shiny pits but the bolt was seated so deep she’d have to cut the stud through to the weatherboard to get it out and it was a load-bearing wall so she hit it and hit it and hit it and then she gave up.



© Carl Shuker, 2019, published in A Mistake, Victoria University Press.

'Novels stand outside time, with their narrative structure of beginning, middle and end. They outlast politics, which are by nature ephemeral, swift and changeable and can quickly become invisible, detectable only to the skilled eye. ' - Fiona Farrell

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