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Fiction reviews


Morris Gee - Prowlers

18 June 1988

Maurice Gee
Faber and Faber

Published in The Age

KIWI WRITER MAURICE Gee's narrator in Prowlers is Sir Noel Papps, an octogenarian New Zealand soil scientist, who is looking back on his life for the benefit of Kate, his grand-niece. The redoubtable Kate, whose pedantic feminism, among other things, reveals her to be a little on the callow side, is writing the biography of Papps's late sister, Kitty - a pioneer woman parliamentarian.

In the beginning this novel, with its bitter-sweet recollection of New Zealand in and after the Great War, and its passing parade of "extraordinary characters", seems similar to Ronald McKie's Mango Tree - which dealt with the Australia of the same period. (Both begin with young men finding their feet in country towns, as news filters in from Flanders' fields.) However the two books soon part company. Gee's is the more "internal" story: character takes over from "characters". And Noel Papps's narration gathers strength in a cumulative way: the slow but very sure accretion of emotional detail.

The three major characters, apart from himself, are Noel's sister Kitty, his life-long love Irene, and his womanising close acquaintance, Phil Dockery. The women are closer to each other than to him - in fact Irene acts as a kind of emotional backstop to the fiery Kitty between Parliamentary sittings. And she never manages to reciprocate Noel's love.

The novel's most striking character, though, is Ruth Verryt, a Dutchwoman who reciprocates with a vengeance. The wife of a distinguished entomologist, she lands in Jessop (the town in which the novel is set), and swiftly pronounces it a "poddle" (puddle):

"My husband likes your country. He thought it might be - what is it, Piet, some sort of nature's children, eh? It is not so. This Jessop is a poddle..."

We did not care to have women talk in this way. But our battery of eyes seemed to stimulate her. "A little poddle full of croaking frogs. I thought New Zealand would amuse me. But it is boring."

"I, unlike my wife," Verryt began. [The first of four attempts to interrupt her.]

"You have buildings made of wriggly tin and when it rains you cannot hear yourself. And a cathedral I would not go to black mass in. Do you not know your buildings speak for you?"

She eventually seduces Noel in a field ("Say nothing Dr Papps. No stupidities or I will scratch. We have warm sun and grass. We will make love.")

Their sexual escapades are described with stunning emotional accuracy, and usually without the mention of a single physical detail. For this is a book about impressions people make on each other: the way they feel, both to themselves and to the narrator.

Gee's characters have tremendous life (you can't merely say verisimilitude). By the time you're mid-stream and heading down-river with them they feel like your own relatives, and their pasts seem to have parallels with your own, and everyone's. Perhaps they have, too. For their interest, their flamboyance, is not at all a contrived or a "literary" affair. It is solid and real. Yet because of it the novel sometimes has the feel of fable: you expect wonders to happen, and the realism to shatter. It never does.

Perhaps the best-detailed dynamic is that between Noel and his grand-niece. Kate regards him as a silly old man at first. But a few painful setbacks later she begins to understand that you do learn something in eighty-four years. She improves before our eyes, and we rejoice in her pain - she needed it.

The narrator's still-living boyhood friend, Phil Dockery, has no real commitment to people - only property and money. Phil, with his whiskey and his redeeming nuances, is very nearly an archetypal post-War businessman. His encounters with the feminist greenie Kate, fifty years his junior, are like worlds colliding.

Maurice Gee has the skill of uniting the banalities of these people with their spirituality, often in the course of a single sentence: surely the mark of a very fine writer indeed. It would be possible to overlook the superb crafting that has gone into Prowlers, for the writing is very unobtrusive. Gee captures several lives, letter and spirit, and shows them to us without filters and without fancy devices. He follows them from their childhoods in early years of the century, through to their old age. The structure is impressionistic: an unnecessary decade will be skipped without apology. But the seams are invisible, and the story, in the end, is hypnotically interesting.

Prowlers finishes in the same discursive, and slightly jagged, way it begins. The dissonance of some of its phrases, the quick flights back and forth in time by the old narrator, and the frequent jumping of tenses, give an early impression of would-be cleverness. Phrases like "She rose on my life like a sun..." set you wondering, even as late as page 174, whether the author is quite sure of what he is doing. But like all great literary craftsmen, he gets the tenses and the time-frames working for him, rather than bowing to their rules. The language sings his tune, not its own, and by the end you are ensconced in it. His is, quite simply, a slightly new conception of writing.

In short, Prowlers is quite brilliant. If your faith in the literature coming from this part of the world sometimes flags, as mine does, it cannot be recommended highly enough.

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