Photo credit: Robert Cross
Sue Orr on Maurice Gee:
I first dipped my toes into the murky eddies (there we go, creek reference out of the way) of Maurice Gee’s fiction in 1987. Passing through a flat in London, I found a first edition copy of his third novel, In My Father’s Den, on a bookshelf. It was a hardcover, as I recall, and Celia Inverarity bore a Mona Lisa-esque countenance, as if she knew she’d be dead by the end of paragraph one.
The book’s provenance brought on a rush of homesickness; I borrowed it and read it. Paul Prior and his repressed, violent kin abruptly cured my yearning, but the book did more than that. Miles away from New Zealand, I understood that the truth of my home – its scarred, damaged underbelly – was mapped out on these pages for anyone to discover.
I tried hopelessly to forget what I’d read, but Gee kept luring me back to his pseudo-fictional worlds. Those novels – The Plumb Trilogy, Prowlers, The Burning Boy – were like a drug, or perhaps a foul-tasting tonic that I knew was good for me. Not the me I was then, but the me I would become: a hopeful novelist.
I was frightened of the potency of Gee’s stories; of what they knew of watching, listening men and their motivations. I didn’t like the way the characters burrowed like tapeworm in my gut. But for all the reasons I feared those masterpieces, I adored them. I loved how they scraped compulsively, relentlessly at the veneer of New Zealand’s moral high-ground. The more I came to appreciate the brilliance of Gee’s complex crafting and plotting, his unflinching honesty, the less I cared for other fiction.
Twenty-five years later, I began a doctorate in creative writing. I planned to explore the ways in which a New Zealand writer had manipulated the act of eavesdropping in unexpected ways. I cleared a shelf on my bookcase and pretended for a while that that writer wouldn’t be Gee. Then I filled that shelf with every one of his 17 adult novels. It was a blissful act of fandom.
During the past three years I’ve read all the novels at least once; four of them six times. George Plumb and Noel Papps are so familiar to me, they might as well be my own sulking great-uncles, festering in a dusty corner of a lounge, pretending not to listen. During each of the multiple readings, those old men and their families have revealed something new about the human condition. For taciturn old curmudgeons, they remain remarkably alive and living, terrifying in good and bad ways.
Gee wrote on through the decades, gifting us Going West, Crime Story, Ellie and the Shadow Man, Blindsight and finally, in 2009, Access Road. Hearing it was to be his last novel felt like bereavement: sadness tinged with the tiniest flutter of relief that the itching and scratching might be over. Should the craving return – and I know it will – I’ll simply turn back to my Gee bookshelf.
Editor note: Maurice Gee has since published one more young adult book The Limping Man (Puffin, 2010), the third of his Salt series.
Honoured New Zealand Writer, Auckland Writers’ Festival (2012)
New Zealand Post Book Award, YA Fiction (finalist) (2011)
New Zealand Post Book Award, YA Fiction (2008)
Montana New Zealand Book Awards, Deutz Medal for Fiction (2006)
Readers’ Choice Award (jointly awarded) (2006)
Honourary DLitt, University of Auckland (2004)
Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement (2004)
Montana New Zealand Book Awards for Fiction (runner-up) (2004)
Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, South Pacific & South East Asian Region (shortlisted) (2004)
Gaelyn Gordon Award (2004)
Arts Foundation of New Zealand Icon Artist (2003)
Montana New Zealand Book Awards for Fiction (shortlisted) (2002)
Margaret Mahy Medal and Lecture Award, Children’s Literature Foundation (2002)
Montana New Zealand Book Awards, Deutz Medal for Fiction (1998)
Esther Glen Award, LIANZA Children’s Book Awards (1995)
Goodman Fielder Wattie Book Awards (1993)
Meridian Energy Katherine Mansfield Memorial Fellowship (1992)
New Zealand Book Awards (1991)
Writers’ Fellow, Victoria University (1989)
Honourary DLitt, Victoria University (1987)
Esther Glen Award, LIANZA Children’s Book Awards (1986)
Goodman Fielder Wattie Book Awards (1979)
New Zealand Book Awards (1979)
James Tait Black Memorial Prize (1978)
New Zealand Book Awards (1976)
Robert Burns Fellow, Otago University (1964)
New Zealand Literary Fund (1961)
Read NZ Te Pou Muramura writer page
Arts Foundation writer page
Penguin Books author page
Bridget Williams Books (BWB) author page