Worthy addition to Gee's 54-year body of work

Lawrence Jones reviews Access Road.

Maurice Gee
Penguin, $37, pbk

AT the Montana New Zealand Book Awards in July 2006, when he won the fiction award and the Deutz Medal for Blindsight, Maurice Gee said that it might be his last novel.

He said he had made a start on a new novel for younger readers, but did not know if he would go on with it.

That unfinished book became Salt, the first in a planned trilogy, with the second, Gool, following in June 2008 and the third likely to appear early next year.

When Gool came out, he said he was also working on another adult novel and it was "nearing completion". Access Road is that novel, and the prefatory material shows that he intends it to be his last adult novel.

In the dedication to his wife, his two daughters, his son and his two brothers, he calls it "this end of the road novel", and elsewhere he thanks his publisher, agent and editor for "a long and happy collaboration".

The novel appears in the familiar format that Penguin first adopted for Loving Ways in 1996, and Gee readers will recognise many familiar elements in its contents also.

The place, Access Rd in Loomis, bears a strong resemblance to Orchard St in Blindsight and in the earlier young people's novel of that name, and all three obviously spring from Newington Rd in Henderson, where Gee grew up.

Readers of Gee's autobiographical essays will recognise people and events based on them, and the narrator, Rowan Pinker, even includes as her own a short story and a few lines from a poem by Gee's mother, Lyndahl Chapple Gee.

Readers of Blindsight will see many parallels.

Like Alice Ferry, the narrator of Blindsight, Rowan is 78 (Gee turned 78 in August) and tells a life-story focusing on family and sibling relationships.

As in Alice's narration, there is a key event in the past that she does not tell us until near the end, but while Alice repressed any mention of an event that she knew but did not want to face, Rowan genuinely did not know of what had happened back there in 1949, although, like Meg Sole in Meg, she tended to close her eyes to some things that she really did not want to know about her family.

Rowan, the one-time English teacher and would-be writer, is looser in her narrative than was Alice, the scientist, following her memory wherever it takes her, as she moves back and forth in time.

But it all comes together in the end for a strong climax.

That climax involves the revelation of violence in the past, as in Blindsight, but also violence and suspense in the present.

Like most of Gee's novels this probably final one expresses his obsession with human evil, the need to recognise that it is an inescapable fact of human life and that it can issue from and/or land upon oneself and one's family.

The central concern of the book is Rowan's moral education into learning this home truth.

Charlotte Grimshaw, in the Listener, has objected to this emphasis on violent evil, saying it is too atypical to allow us to identify with Rowan's moral education and have "our complacent sense of ourselves" shaken up.

A range of experiences from attending a large urban high school in the United States to regularly reading the Otago Daily Times, not to speak of the nightmare that has been political history of the past 95 years, convinces me that Rowan's world is not that atypical.

There are psychopaths out there, possibly even in here, in our own family or circle of acquaintances, and there may be things in ourselves that we do not want to face that either resonate to or condone their actions.

Readers put off by the violence in Gee's fiction may not want to attempt this book (Rowan reads Georgette Heyer), but those who do venture into it will find Gee's usual strong sense of place, morally and psychologically insightful characterisation, fine plotting, exact language, and crafts-manlike control of point of view and sequencing.

This may not be his finest or richest novel, but it is a very good one, and an appropriate conclusion to a writing career stretching back 54 years, a worthy addition to the finest body of work in New Zealand realism.

- Lawrence Jones is an emeritus professor of English.

Add a Comment