Book Review: Maurice Gee: life and work, by Rachel Barrowman

Available now in bookstores nationwide. cv_maurice_gee_life_and_work

Maurice Gee is held in great respect by a vast number of readers both in NZ and around the world. He has published 32 novels, for adults and younger readers. I have read most of them and thought I knew a bit about his work.

Well, whatever tiny amount that was, Rachel Barrowman has multiplied it ten thousand times, at least.

This large (543pp) work is a comprehensive interweaving of Gee’s life and work – inseparable as they are – and a really great addition to the work available on NZ writers.

It is a scholarly work: Barrowman explores Maurice Gee’s work in the context of his personal and family history and how that affected his attitudes and his work. Relationships with other NZ literary greats – Charles Brasch, Maurice Shadbolt, to name only two – and with his varied publishers and editors provide fascinating insights into how the literary world worked; sometimes not as smoothly as one would like, it would appear.

The picture which appears of Maurice Gee the writer is inextricably entwined with Maurice Gee the man, as every aspect of his creative life is examined alongside pertinent events in his personal life; connections are cleverly and perspicaciously made between real life and fiction, between one novel and another, between place in Gee’s life and upbringing, and place in his novels. One is easily identifiable as the other, or at least as part of the other, as you read through this fascinating book.

The relationships which Gee had particularly with his mother – but also with other family members – had a profound effect, not only on how he saw the world, but on how he wrote about it – not that this is unusual for a writer of fiction. But Rachel Barrowman writes with a wealth of information and a depth of understanding that makes Maurice Gee and his family and friends really come alive.

The strong family link to writing, the teaching for which he was not cut out, the difficult relationship with his first serious girlfriend, the time had in Napier as City Librarian which didn’t end well (and in which Napier Library was the loser), the tough decisions made to give up work to concentrate on full-time writing, the staunch support of Margareta throughout, the family, the travels, the dynamics of the weird and wonderful world of literary fiction – all of it was mixed and blended, reworked, pulled apart and turned into a prodigious output of really good novels.

It s a seriously good book. While Rachel Barrowman’s sentences are quite complicated, and I found myself having to go back several times to parse them, that could be because much of my current reading is fiction designed for teenage readers: hardly a complex clause to be found!

And I’d like to mention the brilliant indexing of Tordis Flath – it helps enormously with managing the large cast present in this work.

I’d recommend this book to anyone who is seriously interested in the work of Maurice Gee – you’ll learn a great deal about the writer as well as his wonderful novels.

Reviewed by Susan Esterman, Library Manager, Scots College

Maurice Gee: life and work
by Rachel Barrowman
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9780864739926

Dear Charles, Dear Janet: the friendship of Charles Brasch and Janet Frame

An event at the Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival

“Dear Charles, Dear Janet” was a reading of carefully selected excerpts from Janet Frame and Charles Brasch’s correspondence and journals. Sitting at a long table in front of the audience were the four readers—student Georgina Reilly and poet, critic and Landfall editor David Eggleton, to read Frame and Brasch’s correspondence in their early years, and Pamela Gordon and Alan Roddick to read Frame and Brasch’s correspondence in their later years (who respectively act as executors for Janet Frame and Charles Brasch’s estates).
I’m familiar with Janet Frame’s work, and I know a certain amount about her life, but hearing these excerpts from Frame and Brasch’s letters made me realise what extraordinary friends the two of them were. It was fascinating to hear Janet Frame’s first, extremely tentative and awkward letter to Charles Brasch, meekly informing him that she had some work “if I can bring myself to show it to anyone”, and later saying “I enclose (with diffidence) a bit of writing”. Brasch’s own letters were initially quite formal, but always encouraging and supportive, and it was so lovely to hear the tone of the letters change as time passed and their friendship grew and grew.

I had had no idea that Charles Brasch had been so dogged about getting Janet Frame financial support; it sounds like he spent at least six or seven years lobbying the government to give her a pension. It was also wonderful to hear how Janet Frame’s world opened up, particularly after gaining the Burns Fellowship at the University of Otago. Suddenly she’s writing to Charles from London, then Baltimore, then New York, and talking about staying at the same writer’s colony as Phillip Roth.

p_RoddickThe readers were all excellent, but for me, the standout was Alan Roddick (right), who (perhaps unintentionally) seemed to embody the ‘character’ of Charles Brasch the best. In one of Janet Frame’s letters to American painter Bill Brown, she described Charles Brasch as “a noble, upright old man with discipline not marrow in his bones”. But it is also clear that he had a great deal of kindness, for which Janet Frame rewarded him with a great deal of admiration and affection. The reading was warmly received by the very large crowd (even if the drone of bagpipes from the capping parade down on Moray Place was not!)

Event reviewed by Feby Idrus, on behalf of Booksellers NZ