Moving on from Mahy

02:21, Aug 23 2012

When I was about twelve, I picked a book out of the "Biographies" section at Warkworth Library at random.

It had a picture on the front of a little family with two dogs, an owl, a collection of turtles and some scorpions all sitting on a wall in the sunshine-  I was intrigued.

The book was Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, and for years afterwards I entertained a breathless daydream that I could go visit Gerry and his animals in Corfu. Eventually I learned the great naturalist had died in 1996 while I was still reading picture-books.

Despite the shock, My Family is still the book I reach for when it’s late and I can’t sleep. It sits alongside Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, Tove Jansson’s Finn Family Moomintroll series and Margaret Mahy’s now-discontinued classic, The Door in the Air and Other Stories.

When Mahy’s death was announced a month ago, it took me right back to that first moment when I realised I’d been wishing on ghosts. Like losing the family pet you grew up with or leaving home for the first time, it was another sad milestone – bittersweet though, in that for a few days all of New Zealand got to celebrate Mahy’s life.

For those who haven’t read it, The Door in the Air is a beautiful collection from Mahy at her deliciously witchy, spiritually generous best. Illustrated with luscious inky drawings by Diana Catchpole, the book was her first attempt to write stories directed at teenagers and deals in a roundabout way with change of every variety.


The stories themselves are wildly imaginative, and a little edgier than some of her later work. Anybody who ever had a favourite swing will identify with “little eagle” Aquilina in the title story, while A Work of Art fondly satirises the occasional disconnect between capital-A visual art and acts of creation. Memorable characters include Brighton, a flamboyant roller-skating ballet dancer who charms wolves into joining the Hookywalker School of Dramatic Art using only his smooth moves and a tape recorder playing The Noble Savage in the Lonely Wood, and two separate pairs of opposite sisters.

My favourite story, The Bridge Builder, tells of a young traveller named Merlin whose father becomes a worldwide fugitive who constructs unexpected works of art.

“Over a river that wound through a grove of silver birch trees he wove a bridge of golden wires, a great cage filled with brilliant, singing birds; and in a dull, tired town he made an aquarium bridge whose glass balustrades and parapets were streaked scarlet and gold by the fish that darted inside them. People began to go out of their way to cross my father's bridges."

At the climax of the story, Merlin speaks a magic word to his father which changes him into the purest expression of his personality- a mossy old bridge. The bridge’s sudden appearance saves three soldiers whobecame trapped on a cliff edge while trying to arrest the bridge builder.

Happily, I saw references to this story sneak into several tributes to Mahy herself. It seemed like an appropriate expression of Mahy’s true function during life- using her stories to build singing bridges in mid-air to all sorts of different worlds.

For a more in-depth look at Mahy's use of metaphor and the place of magic in her stories, you can look at an essay she wrote for literary journal Sport in 1991 called The Dissolving Ghost.

This piece is a really enjoyable dose of undiluted Mahy, and I recommend it even if academia isn’t usually your scene. She treats the format like a fireside tale, and winds her way comfortably through digressions and personal anecdotes before arriving at her conclusion as if by accident. Speaking about the effect Kipling's The Jungle Book had upon her as a child, she said:

"I couldn't bear that that particular story should remain in what I then perceived as the half life of fiction. Coleridge has described works of fiction as acts of secondary creation, and I wanted to make The Jungle Book primary. I wanted to make it as if it had been created by God not by human beings."

May Mahy’s own half-life keep rolling happily on.

(Live Matches)