NOEL SHEP­HERD (STEELE ROBERTS AOTEAROA, $25)

North & South - - Review -

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.

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