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Maurice Gee's last novel, Plumb, was the story of a New Zealand Presbyterian minister who preached pacifism and socialism, left the church, and was sent to prison for sedition. The narrator of Meg is his daughter, a woman in her early fifties. In using her as a mouthpiece Gee...
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Maurice Gee's last novel, Plumb, was the story of a New Zealand Presbyterian minister who preached pacifism and socialism, left the church, and was sent to prison for sedition. The narrator of Meg is his daughter, a woman in her early fifties. In using her as a mouthpiece Gee has set himself an even trickier task than that of speaking through her obsessed and unforgiving father, but there are no lapses of style or tone: the narrative voice is consistently convincing.
Meg is the youngest of George Plumb's twelve children, and has grown up emotionally dominated by the family…. Early in the book Meg rejects her romantic, stylized view of them: "I'm grown up now. The Plumbs have a human shape. They're nothing special." But in her retrospective accounts of family gatherings, the central set-pieces of the novel, their humanity is what sets them apart from the less-than-real beings outside the family: "Esther's guests were glittering apes and birds. Only the Plumbs were human."…
Meg's vice is sentimentality. She knows it, and accepts it as a sign of her emotional health, but battles to eliminate it from her literary style, mentally referring phrases to the judgment of her son Raymond, a kind of invisible authorial presence…. She is haunted by a childhood dream of a black river on which the members of her family floated past her, one by one, dead. This, and her youthful concept of the Land of Missing (a grey place where people who are neither wounded nor killed, neither in hospital nor in heaven, wait eternally and alone) recur throughout the story. She sees her bald, ugly brother Robert, recluse and conscientious objector, as a kind of saint (Plumbs tend to be saints or monsters, or occasionally both); she has long known that "he had no intelligence to speak of, and little imagination, but that he was good". His touch heals her emotional wounds after their homosexual brother Alfred has been beaten to death by "queer-bashers", as it healed their father's burnt hand in Plumb.
Meg is capable of her father's intolerant hatreds as well as her mother's disciplined serenity. Her personality makes this a calmer, more subdued novel than its predecessor; it has colour, tension and humour, but the relegation of George Plumb's huge ego to an off-stage role reduces the general scale of things, and Meg's generation hasn't quite the gritty pioneer quality of her father's.
The events of Plumb were enmeshed with New Zealand's political history; in Meg the focus is rather on its social concerns—the Depression, the domestic effects of the Second World War, attitudes to sex and money. Meg can well stand alone, but ideally both volumes should be read together; they complement each other, each subtly illuminating different aspects of characters and events, and the delicate ironies of the later novel are more clearly apparent when set against Plumb's eccentric view of matters in his own narrative. One hopes there will be a third book to complete the pattern.
Fleur Adcock, "Back from the Land of Missing," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1981; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4102, November 13, 1981, p. 1330.