Maurice Gee: Life and Work by Rachel Barrowman.
Wellington: VUP (2016).
Reviewed by Patricia Prime.
Rachel Barrowman’s hefty biography, Maurice Gee: Life and Work is a welcome addition to the biographies of the author and his undisputed place in New Zealand writing. To his credit, there was the success of the Plumb trilogy, the children’s classic, Under the Mountain and many other works. Barrowman has written other biographies of prominent literary figures such as R A K Mason, and she is a skilled researcher as well as a competent writer. It’s the clarity of her research which clearly gives this book its weight and distinction.
From the beginning of the book, Barrowman takes the reader on a journey through the life of this master of fiction. She focuses on the ancestors who shaped his intellect and on his sporting successes, which gave him the edge to succeed in whatever he attempted. The journey towards his successful literary career, the raising of a family and his many friendships are all covered with assiduous finesse. Barrowman shows us a real man, with all his triumphs, failures, hard work and perseverance.
Gee’s reputation of shyness and a desire for privacy: a man in a grey cardie living a self-imposed, humble life, is recorded by Barrowman. She reflects on his relationship with family, friends, his community and his connections with other writers and poets. Gee’s childhood in Henderson is recalled in detail: catching eels in the creek, diving into pools, the orchards and the experiences of life with his parents and brothers.
In “Beginnings”, for example, the story takes the reader straight into the heart of Gee’s life as it begins: ‘At Falls Park the boy watched a man dive into the creek and break his neck.’ The opening chapter goes on to say:
This is Maurice Gee’s affective place; here is where his imagination begins, and returns: ‘an eely creek’, ‘an island creek’, ‘slow and deep and green’. When he was about three years old he nearly drowned in this creek, one day when his mother was out walking with her three sons and turned to see him floating past under the water, eyes open, tiny fists clenched across his chest, and ran along the bank until she could reach in and pull him out. That is his first creek story.
Gee’s place in the geography of the country is also covered in Barrowman’s wonderful prose. Landscapes from Auckland and Wellington to the South Island are covered in detail. These are the locations that informed Gee’s work in books such as Under the Mountain. In “Albert Park” we see him at Auckland University College, where he enrolled in English, history, French and education. It was here he met other aspiring writers:
Shadbolt and Jowsey were also, or soon would be, aspiring writers. At lunchtime the two Maurices would meet in Albert Park by the fountain to eat their sandwiches, earnestly discuss literature and read each other poems.
Maurice Gee’s friendships with other writers like Frank Sargeson and Ian Wedde are redolent of that period in New Zealand society and are also closely examined.
One of his relationships, described by Barrowman, was with Hera Smith, formed in the 1950s and the birth of Gee’s first child, Nigel in 1959. Their relationship was a fraught one, which Smith seems to have dominated and she even wanted to put their child up for adoption. A decision which was overturned, much to Gee’s relief. She later disappeared with the child and it took Gee the rest of the decade to find him. Gee later met and married Margareta Garden and they had two children, Abigail and Emily.
Gee went down to Wellington in mid-February 1966, two weeks before library school started. He had been abandoned by his fiancée and was lonely, but he grew fond of the city and by mid-October he learned that he had a job at the Turnbull Library. By 1969, he was in a good relationship, had begun writing and publishing his stories and was working in the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation library on a part-time basis: writing in the morning and working in the afternoon.
The influence of his publisher, Christine Cole Catley, and his agent, Ray Richard, are also scrutinised in the book. In 1976 he offered his novel The War of the Smiths and the Joneses to Catley, who ran a small publishing house, Cape Catley, from her home at Whatamango Bay in Queen Charlotte Sound. It was ‘earthside s.f., no intergalactic stuff’, he described it to her, written for ten-to-fifteen-year-olds, ‘but adults should find it entertaining too’.
Gee next set to work on his famous series Plumb, which was to prove so successful. But, as Barrowman says:
Whereas for one generation of New Zealand readers Plumb would be the first book they would for ever associate with Maurice Gee, for another it was to be Under the Mountain. It became by far his biggest-selling title: he had been right that writing (well) for children was more lucrative than writing serious fiction for their parents.
In February of 1979, he was approached to write a new series for television, to be called Mortimer’s Patch, a small-town cop series, which was to be highly successful.
Barrowman’s Life and Work of Maurice Gee is a magnificent achievement which should be a welcome addition to school and libraries and will remain the definite work about the author’s life and output.
Patricia Prime, a regular contributor to takahē, is co-editor of Kokako and assistant editor of Haibun Today. Patricia’s primary interest is Japanese short form poetry: haiku, tanka, haibun and tanka prose and she has published a book of collaborative tanka sequences called Shizuka (2015).