FROM THE OXFORD COMPANION TO NEW ZEALAND LITERATURE
Gee, Maurice (1931– ), one of New Zealand’s most distinguished novelists, born in Whakatane, passed much of his childhood in the country town of Henderson (now contained by Auckland’s urban sprawl), and this background plays a major role in his fiction. Again and again his plots are set in Henderson, usually under another name, or other small towns. Even in the most recent, where Wellington and Auckland play a major part, it is their subdivisions — Wadestown, Karori or present-day Henderson — which dominate.
Of special significance is Henderson Creek, where, Gee said, ‘I seem to have spent half my boyhood.’ A place of ‘marvellous and terrible things’, it became a source of his ambivalent imagery. There ‘I got my first sight of death. I’d run home from the creek to the safety and security of the kitchen; one the place of safety and affection, the other the place of adventure, danger, excitement. And death’ (New Zealand Books, Aug. 1995). Echoes of Henderson Creek, in various transformations, pervade his fiction.
Gee’s father was a carpenter, whose sons made the most of their access to tools and materials for making boats for paddling down the creek to Waitemata Harbour. In the fiction, both children and adults have such adventures. Later, Gee lived a while in Napier and then moved to Nelson with his wife and family, to find a rural town near the sea, both resembling and differing from the Henderson of his childhood.
His mother’s tales of family history were equally important to Gee’s developing sense of storytelling, providing a sense of social history and its implications for families, couples and individuals. His description of his grandfather is immediately recognisable to readers of Plumb: ‘He had an ear trumpet that now and then we were allowed to shout into. He spent his time in the study where there were shelves of books that went up to the ceiling. The years of his ministry were years of dispute and rebellion’ (‘Beginnings’, Islands 17, 1977, an important essay for the grounding of Gee’s fiction in his own and his family’s life).
His memories of primary school in Henderson are obviously intense and detailed. Furthermore, he seems able to transfer their atmosphere to other schools. There can be few accounts of a primary school as vivid as Gee’s Nelson Central School: A History (1978), a major contribution to the history of education based on extensive oral research and Gee’s sensitivity to social issues.
Gee then attended Avondale College and University of Auckland (MA in English 1954). He played rugby skilfully, basing the games in The Big Season (1962) on first-hand experience. For two years he was a schoolteacher in Paeroa, but found little to enjoy in the profession. After three years’ casual work in various parts of New Zealand, he spent 1961 teaching and writing in England, partly supported by a grant from the New Zealand Literary Fund.
This acknowledged his growing literary status. Ever since university he had been writing. Short stories were published in Landfall in 1955 (‘The Widow’), 1957 (‘A Sleeping Face’) and 1960 (‘The Losers’), and in *Mate in 1960 (‘Schooldays’). ‘The Losers’ and ‘Eleventh Holiday’ in the British collection New Authors Short Story I (1961) created a wider audience for this new voice.
A year later The Big Season, Gee’s first published novel, was greeted enthusiastically. In the Hawkes Bay Herald Tribune, Louis Johnson wrote that it refuted the criticism that the New Zealand novel shows our way of life as dull. The conservative New Zealand Herald found it ‘not always pleasant, but certainly forceful and sincere’ and the Press commented on the ‘almost cruel accuracy’ of its version of a New Zealand township. The Southland Times went further: ‘Gee must have decided he would outmodernize the modernists in vulgarity.’
This dislike of Gee’s ‘sordidness’ and ‘violence’, combined with inability to fault his technique, has accompanied newspaper reviews ever since, up to the controversy surrounding the children’s novel The Fat Man (1995). The best answer to such pettifogging is the popularity of his work with readers of all ages, including those in other countries. Like many New Zealand writers, Gee confronts the mental constriction of local puritanism, and the backlash shows that it is not just a fictitious construct.
The Big Season celebrates exhilarated joy in the game of rugby, while throwing severe doubt on the social ethos that surrounds it (see also Sport). The central character, Rob Andrews, is diverted from success on the field by fascination for what makes a burglar tick. He is diverted again by the burglar’s girl.
He seems to have betrayed both the ‘élite’ of the rugby world and his lower-class friend, but he has not betrayed himself: for all his confusion he is discovering his own potential. It might be too glib to say that the author is doing so too, but patterns and themes that will shape later books are here in embryo: tension between family members, the failure of community leaders to grow up, violence as a normal element of social life, social constraint and inner freedom and the moral courage of individuals who oppose powerful taboos.
Family tensions dominate A Special Flower (1964), written while Gee was Burns Fellow. Donald Pinnock, a fussy bachelor at 46, is engaged and then married to Coralie Marsh, twenty years younger and of a different social background. The encounter of Donald’s refined mother with Coralie’s railway-worker father is the most powerful of many tragicomic scenes.
As in The Big Season, the protagonist’s family view his attachment to someone of another class as a betrayal—one might also be reminded of the ambitious mother and blunt working father in D.H. Lawrence’s life and fiction. The energetic Coralie leaves to live with (another) rugby hero. Donald, now pathetic, dies in an accident, and gradually his mother, sister and widow come to understand each other better, the three women being sensitively drawn. Raw energy and lifeless gentility reach out for each other, and reconciliation is, as elsewhere, Gee’s antidote to his more vivid theme of intolerance.
Gee’s third novel was In My Father’s Den (1972), a kind of mystery story (see Detective fiction) set in Wadesville, another version of Henderson. Despite a rather melodramatic ending, Gee’s voice seems confidently in control for the first time.
It was followed by the collection A Glorious Morning, Comrade (1975), though many of these eleven short stories had been written before the novels and could be viewed as apprentice work. Nonetheless, they are carefully crafted. When Gee came to publish his Collected Stories (1986), he had added just two more; his mature work has tended to be longer fiction. (There are some half-dozen uncollected stories.) Dysfunctional families and acts of extreme violence, often a group attacking an individual, recur, as do creeks and drownings, while many characters and situations remind the reader of later novels.
In Games of Choice (1976) there is increased subtlety, complexity and tautness of writing. The violence is as much potential, in the attitudes of people towards each other, as actual. (There is a potentially dangerous dog called Muldoon.) These strengths reach their fruition in the masterpiece Plumb (1978), one of the finest novels written in New Zealand. The trilogy of Plumb, Meg (1981) and Sole Survivor (1983) provides a broadly conceived image of life in New Zealand over three generations. Local critical response has been enthusiastic and ongoing and all three books have been successfully published abroad.
Clearly at the height of his powers, and pleased to be writing full-time, Gee combined work on the trilogy with his first children’s fiction. Under the Mountain (1979) is an Auckland tale stimulated by the volcanoes that dot the cityscape. Strange creatures like massive slugs are planning to turn the world into their own muddy element by force of eruption and only Rachel and Theo, possessors of magic stones and with access to the mind of the slugs’ pure enemy, can save the world.
Similarly, in The World Around the Corner (1980) Caroline opposes evil beings who wish to turn a perfect world into a desolate one. In this case both worlds are outside Caroline’s — on the other side of a gate on a hill ‘at the centre of New Zealand’, near Nelson. Illustrations are by Gary Hebley, who provided cover illustrations for others of Gee’s children’s books.
The battle between good and evil, a beautiful natural and social world and a dreary one, is the common theme of these books. It leads into fantasy and ultimately science fiction in the trilogy The Halfmen of O (1982), The Priests of Ferris (1984) and Motherstone (1985). Gee’s children’s novels also include The Fire-Raiser (1986) and The Champion (1989), the story, originally a television series, of a black American in a small New Zealand town in 1943, who brings thrills and hero-worship to the children and arouses racism among the adults.
Going West (1993) is significant for its exploration of the nature of literary creation, and for much encoded autobiography. Rex Petley’s poetry has a creek as a repeating image, and the novel’s ‘Loomis’ is almost indistinguishable from Gee’s Henderson. Gee has said that he will never write an autobiography, because he cannot betray the people who would appear in it, but as Skeat says of Petley, ‘Rex wrote no autobiographical pieces but the images of small town, country school, kitchen, workshop, creek make a kind of autobiography. He points them out, makes sure that we understand that this is no imaginary country, then lets the poems speak for themselves.’ Grounded in reality, but reaching out into a greater meaning than bare reality can provide, such images and changes shape the richness of Gee’s fictional world.
In Prowlers (1987) and The Burning Boy (1990), Gee confirms skills he has developed to high art: the historical novel grounded firmly in the present, and the complex novel of social life and unexpected yet seemingly inevitable modern behaviour, looking forward to Crime Story.
Each of Gee’s novels bountifully gives us a rich vision of some region and aspect of New Zealand life, and of human life in general. Each is peopled with a variety of intensely living and unique personalities together with lush images of the natural and social worlds. Taken together his books can overwhelm us with their wealth, density and complexity of life. Yet there is always an awareness of living at the edge of an abyss: one false move and we shall leave this abundance for nothingness.
Trevor James has pointed out the frequency of such words as void, abyss, hole, missing, and extends their significance beyond Gee to ‘the tendency toward authoritarian conformity which characterises New Zealand society’, inseparable from the ‘puritanism’ that obsesses many New Zealand writers (London Magazine, 24, 11, 1985). Plumb is many things, including a puritan in the religious, secular, local and international senses of the word, and it is not the least of Gee’s achievements to have taken the traditional struggle with puritanism, a major element in the pattern of New Zealand literature, and enriched it by taking the opponent seriously, showing us the integrity, virtue and vitality of puritanism as well as its destructiveness, authoritarian repression and stultifying conformity.
Maurice Gee is a multiple award-winning novelist. A Glorious Morning, Comrade (1976), Plumb (1979), and The Burning Boy (1991) each received prizes for Fiction at the New Zealand Book Awards in their corresponding years of publication. He has twice received the Esther Glen Award at the LIANZA Children's Book Awards, first in 1986 for Motherstone, and again in 1995 for The Fat Man. He has also received two first place awards at the Goodman Fielder Wattie Book Awards: for Plumb in 1979, and for Going West in 1993.
He was the 1964 Robert Burns Fellow at the University of Otago in Dunedin.
Gee received an Honourary Doctorate for services to Literature (DLitt) from Victoria University of Wellington in 1987. In 1989, he was the Victoria University Writers' Fellow.
Gee was the 1992 recipient of the Meridian Energy Katherine Mansfield Memorial Fellowship. One of New Zealand's most long-standing and prestigious literary awards, the fellowship is offered annually to enable a New Zealand writer to work in Menton, France. Previous recipients include C.K. Stead and Janet Frame.
Since the completion of The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature, Gee has published the novel Live Bodies (Penguin, 1998), which won the Deutz Medal for Fiction at the 1998 Montana New Zealand Book Awards. He has also published several books for children and/or young adults: including Orchard Street (Viking, 1998) and Hostel Girl (Puffin, 1999).
In 2002, Gee was honoured by the Children's Literature Foundation for his long-term contribution to children's literature and literacy. The Foundation named Gee as the winner of the Margaret Mahy Medal and Lecture Award.
Ellie and the Shadow Man (Penguin, 2001) was short-listed at the 2002 Montana New Zealand Book Awards. Told in five parts, the narrative traces each significant period of protagonist Ellie’s life, from her difficult childhood in Lower Hutt to the artistic and maternal experiences brought by middle age. Over the course of her life she becomes involved with a series of feckless, forgettable men – but it is the ever-present shadow man who haunts Ellie’s thoughts and forces his way into her paintings.
Maurice Gee was among ten of New Zealand's greatest living artists named as Arts Foundation of New Zealand Icon Artists at a ceremony in 2003.
The Scornful Moon was published by Penguin in 2003. Set in 1935 Wellington, the story centres on James Tinling, a former Cabinet Minister; Eric Clifton, world-renowned moon scientist, and Sam Holloway, literary man and moralist. The Scornful Moon (2003) was short-listed for Best Book in the South Pacific & South East Asian Region of the 2004 Commonwealth Writers' Prize.
Maurice Gee's fantasy classic Under the Mountain was the winner of 2004 Gaelyn Gordon Award for a Much-loved Book. This annual Children's Literature Foundation of New Zealand Award honours a New Zealand book that did not win an award at time of publication but has remained in print and won favour with readers.
Fracture, based on the novel Crime Story by Maurice Gee premiered in March 2004 at the Paramount Theatre in Wellington. The film, directed by Larry Parr, was released throughout New Zealand in June 2004.
In My Father's Den was made into a feature film of the same name, directed by Brad McGann and starring Matthew Macfadyen, Miranda Otto and Emily Barclay. It was released in New Zealand in 2004.
The Scornful Moon was a runner up in the fiction category of the Montana New Zealand Book Awards 2004.
In 2004, Maurice Gee received a $60,000 Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement for fiction. That same year, he received his second Honourary Doctorate in Literature, this time from The University of Auckland.
Maurice Gee's novel Blindsight (Penguin Books, 2005) won the Deutz Medal for Fiction, and the Montana Award for Fiction at the 2006 Montana New Zealand Book Awards. Gee also jointly received the Readers' Choice Award with Fiona Kidman.
One of New Zealand's leading writers for both adults and children, Gee has won the Wattie/Montana Award three times, most recently with Live Bodies, which has sold more than 11,000 copies and like all his novels, was also published by Faber and Faber in the UK.
Salt (Penguin New Zealand, 2007), received the Copyright Licensing NZ Award for Young Adult Fiction at the 2008 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. It was also listed as a 2008 Storylines Notable Young Adult Fiction Book. The second in the trilogy, Gool, was listed as a 2009 Storylines Notable Young Adult Fiction Book.
In Access Road (Penguin, 2009), main character Rowan watches her younger brother lose his battle with memory, and wonders how long she can keep her own past at bay. Access Road is a novel of chilling tension and expansive humanity; a beautifully crafted work of literature and a seductive family story.
Maurice Gee's children’s classic Under the Mountain was released as a major motion picture on 10th December 2009.
In 2009, a New Zealand Book Council short film featuring an excerpt from Gee's novel Going West was awarded an international prize for paper cut animation by New York’s Museum of Art and Design. The animation won the Museum's Choice grand prize award at Moving Paper, an international film festival held at the museum in March. In addition, the film has also won two Axis Gold awards, in the Charity category and the Art Direction & Typography category. The 'Going West film', produced by Colenso BBDO, quickly became a YouTube hit and reached the worldwide top 10 in the viral video charts.
The Limping Man is the third instalment in the Salt trilogy. Published in 2011, the novel was a finalist in the Young Adult Fiction category (Copyright Licensing NZ Award for Young Adult Fiction) at the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults of the same year.
Gee appeared at the 2012 Auckland Writers & Readers Festival as the inaugural Honoured New Zealand Writer, an award conceived to celebrate writers immense contributions to the New Zealand literary world.
In 2013, Gee wrote the short non-fiction work Creeks and Kitchens (BWB Texts), which functions as an autobiographical fragment detailing his childhood experiences in West Auckland.
Rachel Barrowman’s biography Maurice Gee: Life and Work was released in July 2015 by Victoria University Press, and has since received acclaim for its detailed portrait of the historically private author. In a review, Siobhan Harvey noted that the biographer ‘authoritatively examines [her] subject's life, output and creative practice’. Delving into subjects surrounding Gee that were previously untouched- such as the sexual repression within his works – the biography allows the reader a deeper insight into the man behind the writer. Gee says of the work: ‘This [biography] has no holes except for those Rachel has uncovered in her research and looked into with a clear eye. The research has been thorough, unrelenting, illuminating — illuminating even for me.’
Most recently he was awarded the Copyright Licensing NZ Award for Young Adult Fiction in the 2017 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults for his novel The Severed Land (Penguin Random House, 2017). “We knew were were in good hands as Maurice Gee’s elegant writing carried us along on an epic and archetypal adventure of warring families, colonialism, mysterious strangers and making allies out of enemies. Not a word is wasted in this taut, thrilling, often brutal and morally complex tale,” explain the judges.
In 2018, Gee's memoir Memory Pieces was published by Te Herenga Waka University Press. An intimate and evocative memoir in three parts, Memory Pieces was shortlisted for this year’s Royal Society Te Apārangi Award for General Non Fiction at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.
'Double Unit’ tells the story of his parents – Lyndahl Chapple Gee, a talented writer who for reasons that become clear never went on with a writing career, and Len Gee, a boxer, builder, and man’s man; and ‘Blind Road’ is Gee’s story up to the age of eighteen, when his apprenticeship as a writer began. The third part, ‘Running on the Stairs’, tells the story of Margaretha Garden, beginning in 1940, the year of her birth, when she travelled with her mother Greta from Nazi-sympathising Sweden to New Zealand, through to her meeting Maurice Gee when they were working together in the Alexander Turnbull Library in 1967.
Maurice Gee currently resides in Nelson.