Maurice (Gough) Gee

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Fleur Adcock

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[Sole Survivor] is the final novel in a New Zealand trilogy which began with Plumb, the story of a fierce and egotistical nonconformist minister turned heretic, socialist and pacifist. The second book, Meg, took the family saga forward into the 1960s using the gentler, more tentative voice of George Plumb's favourite daughter. The eponymous narrator of Sole Survivor is her son Raymond Sole…. We watch his progress from boyhood through a shy adolescence haunted by unpredictable erections … and the label "creepy", to middle age as a respected journalist, "ex-puritan and ex-family-freak", temporarily beached in sunny rural isolation with his ex-hippy daughter.

But the novel focuses equally on another Plumb grandson, Douglas, born within a few days of Ray and bound to him by a shared childhood and by Ray's grudging, almost perverted affection for the ruthless political monster his cousin has become. "Duggie was never a Plumb" says Meg, shocked by the news that he has joined the National Party; but this unexpectedly Tory Plumb, a man with no conscience, could be seen as a bizarrely distorted caricature of his equally self-centred grandfather, for whom conscience was all.

As a child Duggie practised psychological manipulation on his schoolmates, kept mum while a US Marine bounced off a diving-board to his death in a half-empty pool, and subtly blackmailed a homosexual uncle. Later it is mostly women and political rivals who get crushed by the relentless forward grind of his ambition. By the end of his life he has been responsible, indirectly or not, for more than one death, as well as for several wrecked careers and the prolonged death-in-life of another victim. But all the time his own nemesis has been awaiting its moment in a quarter he could not have suspected.

As Duggie comes up, older members of the Plumb family go gradually down: the highly coloured characters of the earlier volumes … die or decline into wheel chairs and invalid beds. But there's a large and vividly individual cast of non-Plumbs to occupy the reader's attention, as well as an illuminating conspectus of New Zealand's social and political mores: for a moderately short book this lively and economical novel gets a lot in. The time-span extends to the 1981 elections, and real characters and events are effortlessly interwoven with fictional ones…. Backgrounds too (particularly Wellington, where much of the action takes place) are accurately observed….

This is an intricately plotted, beautifully constructed novel, with its many links meshed together into an unobtrusively artful reticulation of past and present, cause and effect. It richly fulfils the high expectations set up by its two predecessors.

Fleur Adcock, "End of the Line," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1983; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4206, November 11, 1983, p. 1255.

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