New Zealand Books
A three-part memoir from Maurice Gee, and the legacy of female suffrage.
Memory Pieces Maurice Gee (Victoria University Press, $35)
What a gift from Maurice Gee as he approaches his 10th decade. Now 87, and already the subject of a substantial biography, he has produced a memoir in three distinctive parts. The first and longest is the story of his parents’ marriage, incorporating an autobiographical piece by his mother. The second is a memoir of his own life until the age of 18, and the third is an account of the life of his wife, Margaretha.
“Double Unit” is the longest and most intriguing section, especially as it casts another light on the figure of Gee’s maternal grandfather, James Chapple, known to us as the model for his character Plum.
Gee’s mother, Lynda, swore incessantly. Her own short memoir is included here in full but there were also poems, stories and other “scribblings” throughout her life. Frank Sargeson saw fit to publish one of her stories in his 1945 collection Speaking for Ourselves.
This section is made eminently readable in part because Lynda and Len’s marriage has its own story arc. There is a theme of disappointment running through it: his with the fact he did not go to war; hers with her failure to achieve success as a writer; and finally a sense of disappointment each develops in the other. Add to this the simple but profound theme of how people cope with change and you have a rich and satisfying read
Maurice’s own memoir, “Blind Road”, is told as a series of brief childhood epiphanies. More concerned with illuminating than archiving, he says in the preface that where research and memory have been at odds, he’s chosen the latter. At one point, he refers readers to Rachel Barrowman’s biography if they require more information. He retells some of the events in “Double Unit”, suggesting the two pieces were compiled some time apart.
The trilogy is rounded off with “Running on the Stairs”, a short but affectionate tribute to his wife and the life of their marriage.
Ajax the Kea Dog Corey Mosen (Allen & Unwin, $39.99)
It’s got a dog, kea and the high-country landscape, so of course it’s going to be a beautiful book. It has the sort of pictures that have you bothering others in the household: look at this one with the robin just sitting on the dog’s paw; look at this one of the kea and the dog eyeballing each other.
Mosen was one of those kids who grew up loving animals, but didn’t like trial stints working with a vet or at the zoo. Luckily for him and his conservationist bent, he and the part- Catahoula breed dog met up and found themselves working for DOC, tracking and recording kea and their habits in the wild. Catahoulas are a smart American breed.
A matchmaking friend, Tamsin Orr-walker of the Kea Conservation Trust, found Ajax for Hansen on Trade Me. Their story is the classical mythic archetype of hero and sidekick, although it’s not always clear which is which. Ajax, like all good heroes, shows no signs of great promise at an early age but turns out to have the very qualities necessary to save the day – or the kea – in the long run. He is not as active now as he used to be, but out of 80 dogs that work for DOC (usually muzzled), he was the only dedicated kea specialist.
There’s also some serious conservation and kea advocacy going on here. Kea are, after all, the world’s only alpine parrot, with a population hovering around 5000. That’s not at the very low end of the scale but certainly not enough to be complacent about their ongoing survival. Their adorable, destructive ways are very entertaining for tourists but can inspire murderous intent in farmers. Man and dog have worked hard to make people see they’re not bad, just misunderstood.
Women Now: The Legacy of Female Suffrage Edited by Bronwyn Labrum (Te Papa Press, $35)
There have been many books riding the suffrage anniversary wave in this 125th year since women won the right to vote, but few as creatively conceived as this small volume of essays. As befits the commemoration of a “first”, it is the first in the Te Papa Thinking About Series.
Editor Bronwyn Labrum
asked 12 writers – 10 women and two men – to compose essays inspired by various items from Te Papa’s collection that had some connection with suffrage.
The artefacts cover 124 years, from Kate Sheppard’s “Franchise Report for 1893 of the New Zealand Women’s Christian Temperance Union” to Erin Kennedy’s knitted pussy hat of 2017. Historian Barbara Brookes relishes getting to grips with the seminal Sheppard document and the questions it raises, such as whether it was printed in Invercargill because it was difficult to find someone willing to produce such a radical item. Her piece shows how every word in “Women’s Christian Temperance Union” was relevant to Sheppard’s ultimately successful struggle. It’s inspiring stuff.
Jump forward a century and a quarter and we have writer Grace Taylor’s thoughtprovoking struggle to come to terms with the pussy hat’s commentary on women’s bodies and their commodification and with the very idea of feminism itself. Which really takes us back 125 years to ponder how far feminism has come.
Perhaps Fiona Kidman could answer that. Her treasure from the collection is the contraceptive pill, which for women who came to maturity in the 1950s, she says, changed the conversation from sex being about pregnancy and childbirth to being about pleasure. But, she notes, the abortion law for which she fought decades ago is still not a reality.
The Heart of Jesus Valentino: A mother’s story Emma Gilkison (Awa Press, $40)
The phrase “every parent’s nightmare” is used quite freely by people discussing problems with their kids, starting at about the level of a case of colic. But the experience described by Emma Gilkison is no parent’s nightmare: who could possibly imagine such a thing happening?
Gilkison and her partner – a Peruvian named Roy, after a movie western hero – are a modern couple. They sort of get together, drift apart, get together again. When she becomes pregnant, there is spotting and other signs all is not well.
Their fears are downplayed by the professionals, until a scan reveals at 12 weeks that this baby has ectopia cordis, a condition in which the foetal heart forms outside the body. It’s a rare condition and survival is even rarer. Weeks of worry and fear follow as Gilkison searches down every medical byway looking for the person who will tell her all will be well. That person doesn’t exist.
It’s a story that incorporates many virtues: courage, resignation, love and hope, to name a few.
There is a strong spiritual component to the story. Buddhism and Catholicism join forces to support Gilkison. She and Roy cannot agree on whether to terminate the pregnancy, as many recommend. And concurrent with all this trauma, they are teetering on the brink of homelessness, trying to find a house to buy that may or not need to provide shelter for a family of three.
The question of termination is the very definition of dilemma. With the baby’s survival almost certainly not possible, there is no clear right or wrong answer, only tidal waves of advice assailing them from all sides.
Another phrase often bandied about when anyone survives more than a case of colic is “testament to the power of the human spirit”. This book is such a testament. +