New 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
by Greg McGee
Published by Upstart Press