Rachel Barrowman's Maurice Gee: Life and Work is the definitive word

Rachel Barrowman biography of  Maurice Gee does justice to one of New Zealand's most acclaimed writers.
Jess McKeown / Fairfax

Rachel Barrowman biography of Maurice Gee does justice to one of New Zealand's most acclaimed writers.

Maurice Gee: Life and Work

Rachel Barrowman

Victoria University Press, $60

Maurice Gee: Life and Work by Rachel Barrowman.

Maurice Gee: Life and Work by Rachel Barrowman.

Given his six decades writing some of New Zealand's most significant books including the Plumb trilogy and the children's classic, Under the Mountain, not to mention his undisputed place as our greatest living author, it's astounding that very few have tackled writing about Maurice Gee. The last true monograph devoted to him was authored by esteemed poet Bill Manhire back in 1987. Since then there have been interviews in anthologies about New Zealand authors, such as the Mark William and Elizabeth Alley edited In the Same Room, and a realm of literary festival discussions. But nothing substantial or definitive; certainly nothing weighty enough to capture the entire Gee: man, life, oeuvre, import, impact and legacy. Until now. Rachel Barrowman's hefty biography, Maurice Gee: Life and Work is a book worthy of its subject's talent and importance.

Barrowman is an accomplished, prize-winning biographer who has already penned works devoted to prominent literary figures such as R.A.K. Mason. Being ideally placed to undertake a study of an even more significant subject such as Gee is one thing; realizing that potential another. Barrowman is clearly a thorough researcher as well as a skilled writer; and it's this, the depth, clarity and clarification of her research which shines through in Maurice Gee: Life and Work.

Within the first few pages, for instance, we're pulled into the minutiae of Gee's life. From the ancestors who originated him to the small moments which shaped his intellectual and thematic curiosities, from the boyhood sporting success to the travails of carving out a literary career whilst raising a young family: it's all here. Through 500+ pages, Barrowman takes us to the real person, his triumphs, slogs and failings, at the heart of an often private man.  

The other significant thing Barrowman achieves is to anchor Gee to a place, or rather a set of places. Of course, there's discussion of formative personal and familial landscapes such as Sydenham, Henderson, Wellington and Nelson. But Barrowman's book makes clear that to understand Gee is to understand geographies cerebral and social, not just physical. And so there's close discussion of how such sceneries helped form and inform Gee's works and have assisted with the development of a distinct Gee literary mindscape. Moreover, Maurice Gee: Life and Work locates the man within that illustrious milieu of earlier writers like Shadbolt and Sargeson, as well as examining influential relationships he's had with publishers like Christine Cole Catley and with agent, Ray Richards.  

Barrowman's Maurice Gee: Life and Work authoritatively examines its subject's life, output and creative practice. In years to come, it will be the go-to for anyone eager to delve into the man behind many of our most major literary works.

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