Book Review: Necessary Secrets, by Greg McGee

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_necessary_secrets.jpgNew Zealand-born playwright and award-winning novelist Greg McGee delivers a powerful examination of life in his new novel Necessary Secrets.

The story follows Dennis Sparks (Den), recently diagnosed with dementia, and his three adult children as they navigate the joys and hardships of their seemingly individual – yet ultimately connected – lives. Each sibling is allocated a season in which their lives unfold and unravel. Starting from eldest son and meth addict Will, we then move to ‘guarding angel’ and social worker Ellie, and the narrative concludes with self-sustaining and soul-searching Stan.

McGee’s characters are bold and distinct, and he does not shy away from revealing their flaws. A line which comes from Den about his children early on in the novel captures the essence of their development: ‘[W]hatever we’ve become out in the world, we always come home to be what we were.’

Eldest son Will is snarky, cruel and materialistic. We assume this is an effect of his drug addiction and broken marriage. But, even in recovery, his chances to redeem himself turn out to be self-serving or corrupt, betraying not only his siblings, but the reader who can’t help but urge him to turn his life around.

Ellie, at first, appears to be a do-gooder – she volunteers, she fosters children in volatile situations, and she helps women escape brutal domestic violence. Yet she faces her own challenges too, and her good deeds end with cynicism. The charity she volunteers at turns out to be a corrupt commercial operation and she is constantly aware of the repetitive cycle of violence. She is afraid of bringing her own child into the world and confesses that killing all abusers would be an easier (and safer) solution than the uncertain process of the New Zealand courts.

Youngest sibling, Stan, who has lived ten years of his life in a self-sustaining community, finds himself unsatisfied and yearning for more. Although he’s always detested commercialism, he is lured back to the city by the opportunities that inherited money gives him in modern society.

McGee creates deep connections between the three siblings and the reader. We are constantly learning and being challenged by what we know as each sibling becomes more complicated and (sometimes disturbingly) real. Their lives speak to the dark desires of the human condition, to the constant lurk of mortality, as well as to the joys of growth, perseverance, and human connection.

What is most affecting in Necessary Secrets, and certainly what lingers most, are the scenes blended among the seasons. Den’s battle with his disease, as it takes his memories, judgement, and understanding, is distressing. From seeing his care home as a “strange” hotel, to forgetting names, faces, and how to use cutlery, McGee captures Den’s desperation and confusion in his hauntingly simple prose. Den’s perspectives don’t exist in periods of time like his children’s, because he no longer has any determination of it. They float between the seasons, detached but heavy with fear – a fear no longer of his own mortality, but for losing his sense of self and home.

Necessary Secrets is an intimate yet stark story which focuses on societal issues that New Zealanders face every day, and it handles them with upfront honesty. It is a beautiful yet hard-hitting novel.

Reviewed by Susanna Elliffe

Necessary Secrets
by Greg McGee
Published by Upstart Press
ISBN 9781988516639

Going West: Worlds Apart, featuring Greg McGee in conversation with David Larsen

cv_the_antipodeansGreg McGee is an extraordinary chap, who quipped that his occupational ‘devolution’ (I would venture it’s rather an evolution) has seen him move from a career in rugby, to law, to writing. He is perhaps best known for his 1981 play The Foreskin’s Lament, which tackled rugby culture in New Zealand. But today’s conversation focused on The Antipodeans, a multi-generational novel about a New Zealand family and its members interactions with the people of Northern Italy. Gee offered that there’s a bit of quantum physics and Auckland real-estate content thrown in.

In conversation with David Larsen, McGee spoke about his reservations about rugby culture, especially around the time of the 1981 Springbok tour. He suggests that now there is more diversity among its players, and that medical assistance is such that players can get thrashed, quickly fixed, and put back on the field so that they can get thrashed again. He spoke about alpha-males in society, and made the quick assertion that, no, despite being a six-foot-something rugby-playing male, he wasn’t one of them.

They spoke about McGee’s writings under the pseudonym of Alix Bosco, about the benefits and difficulties of working under pseudonymity, with comical anecdotes about his coming-out-of-the-closet as a female author.pp_greg-mcGee

They spoke about McGee’s time in Italy, first when he was coaching rugby and later, as a recipient of the Katherine Mansfield grant, which saw him living in close-proximity Menton, France. The Antipodeans was born as a germ of an idea in the late 1970s, with a lengthy gestation period which saw the novel finally brought to light this year. McGee spoke about his realisation that there existed an Italian Resistance during the war, and the force that this had in the formation of his story.

David invited McGee to read from his novel. McGee suggests that it makes sense to commence at the novel’s beginning, and so he reads the first chapter. We are sent to Venice, where an elderly man and his newly-single daughter have arrived for a supposed reunion. Only, it seems that the father is transfixed with other ghosts from his past.

It is compelling storytelling, and, so, in the intermission I was set on buying another book, with fingers crossed that my Eftpos card would oblige.

Event reported by Elizabeth Morton

The Antipodeans
by Greg McGee
Published by Upstart Press
ISBN 9781927262030

Book Review: The Antipodeans, by Greg McGee

Available in bookstores nationwide. This book has been on the NZ fiction bestsellers list since its release in early July.

cv_the_antipodeansIt took Greg McGee thirty years to complete this book, the seed planted in the mid-1970s when he was playing rugby in the north-east of Italy, living amongst Italians, speaking the language, absorbing himself into being Italian. At that time it was only thirty years since the end of the second world war, a war which tore Italy apart – one minute Italy was an enemy, next minute it was an ally – so still very fresh in people’s minds. Many NZ soldiers fought in Italy during the war, and in the northeast where this novel is set, a number of NZers were closely involved in the partisan movement, risking their own lives, and putting the lives of the local people at huge risk, for which the consequences were deadly. Much of this has been documented and McGee acknowledges these sources which he makes rich use of in his storytelling.

And what a rich tale this is, set against such a background, telling the story of three generations, over three different time periods, in both New Zealand and in Italy. Clare is one of the narrators, in the present day, who is accompanying her father on a trip to Venice for a reunion of a rugby team he played and coached for in the 1970s. Clare has had a pretty rough time of it lately herself and the trip is supposed to give her some space from what has been going on in her life. Her father, Bruce, is also on a personal mission which Clare does not appreciate until it is too late, and on reading her father’s diary she begins to unscramble the father she never really knew.

Parallel to the Clare/Bruce thread is that of Joe Lamont and Harry Spence – two NZ POWs, on the run in the mountainous regions of the border between Yugoslavia and Italy. It goes without saying that terrible things happen. Most of the book is taken up with Joe’s story – from his early life in rural Oamaru to his big war adventure, time as a POW and subsequent escape, then the dark days after the war and its horror ended. War does terrible things to people, some thrive and survive, others almost die and still survive, and others just die. Both Harry and Joe are haunted for the rest of their days by what went on in the mountains. Things have not improved much for Bruce when he is in Italy in the 1970s. Fascism never really went away after the war, and the Red Brigade is running its own terror campaign.

Through this many layered web, the story swirls and travels, coming together at the end in a most satisfactory fashion, and not without a twist or two in the tale. I really liked this book, I was hooked from the very beginning, and snatched chances to read a few more pages any chance I could. Fortunately the chapters were fairly short so I could do this!

The only two jarring notes for me were the constant shifts in time and location, I found it distracted from the flow of the story. And the second thing, the quantum physics stuff: I know the author is trying to tell us something here, but it just seemed to be out of place with the storytelling. But this is just a small criticism – the philosophical physics information does not distract from the story in any way.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

The Antipodeans
by Greg McGee
Published by Upstart Press
ISBN 9781927262030