NOEL SHEPHERD (STEELE ROBERTS AOTEAROA, $25)
To write a novel about the creation of a New Zealand classic, and to confess to doing so in a style that attempts to emulate that classic, is an audacious aim. Noel Shepherd attempts to tell the story of John Mulgan’s last weeks on earth, covering those days of World War II and the aftermath, in which he fought, wrote Report on Experience and eventually killed himself. It has considerably more action – including one particularly unpleasant scene of violence committed on a woman – than the novel that inspired it.
Shepherd plays repeatedly on the theme of New Zealandness and national character that Mulgan’s novel Man Alone also attempted to grapple with, although it did so in a much more subtle way. Where is home, wonders Mulgan, who is fighting with the British army. The very first paragraph introduces us to a setting that is “not an English valley and not a New Zealand valley either”. Where does he belong? And to what extent is he himself a man alone?
Early on, Mulgan – known throughout as Jack – encounters a character going by the name of Johns, who is suspected of being a spy. Johns begins to grow in importance in Jack’s mind and activities until he comes to the unsettling realisation that Johns, according to his own version of his life story, is actually Johnson, the protagonist of Man Alone.
This leads us – not inevitably – to Shepherd’s explanation for Mulgan’s mysterious suicide. It’s an account that ultimately
is too wildly speculative to be convincing, even though Shepherd goes to some lengths to make it psychologically believable. In fact, the solution is a literary rather than a credibly psychological or dramatic one.