Ellie and the Shadow Man
Penguin Books, $34.95,
Responses to Maurice Gee’s Ellie and the Shadow Man, his fourteenth adult novel and his twenty-sixth book, will probably vary between the extremes marked by two of my students. One, when asked why he chose to write on the work of Robert Coover, replied that he was tired of realism, humanism, novels with individualised characters, and all that. I cannot imagine that the appearance of another Gee novel would mean anything to him other than “more of the outmoded same”. The other student, who has just finished an enthusiastic thesis on Gee’s work, had borrowed my review copy of the novel in order to read it as soon as possible. He sees in it not more of the same but instead variations on and developments of successful and valued themes and modes. It is in this second spirit that I wish to look at the novel here.
The most obvious aspect of the variations on the familiar is Gee’s recycling of material he has previously used. Several of his kidult novels in the past have been recycled from TV scripts, while, among the adult novels, Prowlers took off from the kidult novel The Fire-Raisers. Here Gee drew on setting, situation, and the outlines of character, and used them in a much more complex structure with a much deeper thematic and psychological resonance. In this new novel he has similarly developed material from his last kidult novel, Hostel Girl.
For example, there is the Woburn hostel for dental nurses (“House 4”), the details of which come from Margareta Gee’s diaries of the years when she was an adolescent, living there with her mother, the matron. The main character of Hostel Girl, Ailsa McGowan, becomes the novel’s central character, Ellie Crowther, with her mother, the matron, also carried over. And Ailsa’s boyfriend, Calum Page, becomes Hollis Prime in the novel, the chief candidate for the shadow man. So, as Gee has said, he used Hostel Girl to “springboard off … into an adult novel”.
But Hostel Girl merely provides material for the first chapter of a long, complex novel. The melodramatic plot of the kidult thriller takes place over a few weeks, while the adult novel is a Bildungsroman stretching over 40 years, structurally akin to Live Bodies, Prowlers, and the Plumb trilogy. Gee has said that he wanted to see what a girl like Ailsa would become like as an adult, and so he has focussed upon Ellie’s development.
At the heart of the book, then, is Ellie, Gee’s most fully-developed female character since Meg, the focus of the second of the Plumb novels. Ellie, however, is a very different character from Meg. Meg, partially based on Gee’s mother, Lyndahl Chapple Gee, was understood very sympathetically but was clearly seen as limited by the Plumb family assumptions. She grows, learns to see more clearly, but she never entirely transcends those assumptions. Ellie, on the other hand, is less limited, and her story is much more one of growth into a kind of self-fulfilment. Gee has said that he was more closely involved with her than with any of his other characters: “[I]f I were a woman she’s the type of woman I’d like to be. She’s tough, she’s honest, she’s uncompromising, she suffers, but she battles through: she does all those things. And she keeps her eye on the goal.”
He might have added that that “goal” on which she has her eye is the complex one of self-fulfilment – finding the work that uses her full self, and finding a relationship that satisfies not only her healthy sexuality but also her deep need to love and be loved, to respect and be respected. This need is reflected by the “shadow man” who appears in some of her paintings, a mysterious figure who plants himself in front of the landscape, “someone with a right to be there”. Soon after the shadow man enters the paintings, Hollis Prime reappears in Ellie’s life and she realises “He’s a sort of a shadow man” (an image she had had of him when they were young).
It is not that he is the romantic “Mr Right”, like the one for whom her room-mate Dolores was searching when Ellie was an adolescent (and Dolores in fact bears Hollis’ child). Rather he is a man who is ultimately willing, like her, to take the risk of stepping out of the framework that other people have made for him and attempting to fulfil his potentiality in his own way. It has taken him longer to do this, but when he gives up the successful tax law business he inherited from his father and becomes a wine-grower, he is making a move analogous to Ellie’s when she gave up being a librarian and dedicated herself to her painting. (It is significant that he tells her that as a tax lawyer he was “like a man without a shadow”.)
Both are willing to take similar risks in relationship, and at the end, as Ellie contemplates the courage Hollis has shown in attempting to meet the unexpected demand of a daughter he had not known of, she sees again the shadow man, this time as a figure in front of a fire at night on the beach, and knows she can paint him, and through him, the dark of the night and the “fierce blaze, that consuming light”. Her painting and her emotional life come together in her relationship with Hollis – not a romantic relationship, because her future will be caring for him as he declines under the burden of his post-polio syndrome.
In Sole Survivor, Gee gave Raymond Sole some of his own family experiences, but showed him taking a turn towards (and beginning to recover from) an almost voyeuristic cynicism in his life as a journalist. In Going West, Gee in a sense divided himself between Jack Skeat, the librarian, and Rex Petley, the writer. Here he divides himself in a more complex way. With Ellie, he says, he has “used a lot of [his] life experiences, but she’s not a portrait of [his] life”. Like Gee, Ellie goes through some limited relationships, has a son outside of marriage, goes to library school, works as a librarian as well as in temporary jobs, but keeps growing towards something more fulfilling – in her case, becoming a painter. If Rex Petley seemed also to include something from James K Baxter’s experience in his life, so Ellie’s life seems also to contain something of Toss Woollaston’s experience. Some of her paintings of the Ruby Bay area sound like his (although her later sequence paintings sound more like Trevor Moffit’s), and the older woman painter Fan Anerdi plays a part in teaching her something like that which Flora Scales played for Woollaston. Like Gee (and unlike Woollaston), Ellie finds her subject and her method only in middle age, and what she creates has something in common with his fiction:
she understood that in her work she had regained her past in a way most people could not. She was not aware of putting it on the canvas, yet it was there, in what she chose, in what arrived unchosen, in her brushstrokes, in her palette. She reached a kind of deep acquaintance with herself.
But one of the relationships that Ellie goes through and grows out of is with the novelist Neil Higgs. He is shown as writing an unsuccessful novel that sounds a bit like Gee’s A Special Flower (Gee’s second novel, and the only one that he will not allow to be reprinted) and a couple of successful ones that sound very much like Plumb and Prowlers. Like Gee, Higgs makes little money from his adult novels, but, as Gee did with Mortimer’s Patch, he does make better money writing scripts for a television cop show. As Gee did in Nelson, Neil writes in a basement study and can be communicated with from the house only by stamping on the floorboards (the code that Ellie suggests to Neil is the same as Gee’s, but Neil doesn’t really want to receive any communication while he is working). Like the Gee described by Margareta Gee to Cate Brett in 1995, Neil is perceived by Ellie as seeing things in his novels that he doesn’t seem to see in ordinary life. Like Gee, he is an ex-puritan who writes about his family past, and, like Gee (and Ellie), he is a socialist.
But he is also a very limited person, able to use Ellie for his comfort, sexuality, security, and research, but unable to relate to her or to his children (by his first marriage) in a way that is adequate to her or to them. He is someone she must leave behind if she is to avoid being as “malformed” by him as her mother was by her stepfather. A literary luncheon for a visiting British woman novelist held at the High Commissioner’s residence is the event that confirms to her that she must leave Neil. There she observes not only the contrast between Neil’s rather stiff propriety and the British novelist’s fierce independence but also a painting by Fan Anerdi of Fan’s partner, Audrey, who has become Ellie’s touchstone for love, a touchstone by which Neil’s relative inadequacies are implicitly judged. Thus, once again with Neil as well as with Ellie, Gee is playing creative variations on familiar (in several senses) materials.
The novel’s social setting shows still more variations on the familiar. Like the other Bildungsromane, it deals with the changes in New Zealand society over a long timespan. But the historical markers are different. Sole Survivor, for example, omitted any mention of both the Vietnam War and the Springbok tour, but here Ellie takes part in anti-Vietnam demonstrations (in England, during her OE); and she and Neil are involved in a vividly realised Molesworth Street anti-Tour demonstration in 1981.
The sharp social changes of the last 40 years are not foregrounded in the way that they are in Crime Story or even in Live Bodies, but they are there in defining the changing social environment within which Ellie must carry out her quest. As an adolescent, she experiences the puritan judgements and inhibitions of the 1950s Mazengarb Report period. As a young woman, she experiences the radical alternative lifestyle of the late 1960s on the Good Life commune in Golden Bay. Muldoon and the Springbok Tour are part of what she defines herself against in the early 1980s, while after 1984 she is “furious, eroded, devastated” by Labour’s “betrayal” of its heritage. Hollis, on the other hand, comes to define himself by his revolt against the late 1980s and 90s corporate greed that he had been abetting (and his small vineyard is very much, for better or worse, a 1990s icon). Once again Gee shows in the novel his comprehensive view of New Zealand social history.
The narrative method of the novel shows yet another variation on the familiar. As with the earlier Bildungsromane, Gee limits the point of view to that of the protagonist, but this time his method is not the retrospective first-person narration that he developed in Plumb and modified in the later ones. Rather it is a restricted third-person one: we see only what Ellie sees, but her impressions are told in the third person, often through free indirect discourse, in a language like hers.
Likewise, there is a change in the sequencing. From Plumb onwards, Gee has used a double time-scheme in these single-protagonist novels, interweaving a remembered past with an advancing narrative present; but here the account is strictly chronological. Gee avoids the tedium and lack of shape of a chronological chronicle by choosing five intense periods of Ellie’s life as the focus, devoting a chapter to each and naming each after a place – for example, “House 4” for her adolescence in Woburn in 1958. The gaps between are filled by a series of “Between times” inter-chapters in which Gee summarises what Ellie did in the interval.
Underlying this simple, direct method is Gee’s realist assumption that he is dealing with his characters and their lives as a kind of history, with the contract between writer and reader being one in which we are to accept this story as Gee’s account of what “really” happened. That is, the characters may be fictional constructs, but they are constructs based on the author’s sense of the real world and are to be read as if they were from that world. Thus, according to Denis Welch, Gee spoke of Ellie to him “as if she were a real person – a close friend, or even a lover”. Such assumptions and conventions are no longer fashionable, but Gee continues to make them work wonderfully.
The one narrative problem this traditional method raises, which Gee does not entirely overcome, is that of a satisfactory ending. He was able to end the earlier Bildungsromane by bringing the past and present time-levels each to a climax at the same place in the text, with each interrelated, so that what happens in the present is a result of that action in the past. Gee attempts something of this in ending the novel with Hollis’ and Ellie’s search for his lost grandson. The search looks back to the past – Hollis’ relation with Dolores in 1959 and the young Ellie’s relation to both of them – while in the present it helps to mark Hollis’ growth, his attempt to “complete himself”, and Ellie’s commitment to him and the resulting painting. This sequence successfully completes the “shadow man” symbolism and gives a sense of relatively open closure, as in the other novels. But because neither Dolores’ daughter nor her grandchild has appeared previously in the novel, the search seems a bit contrived and external.
If the novel’s method springs from familar and now unfashionable narrative conventions, it implies Gee’s likewise familiar and unfashionable ethical assumptions: that individual fulfilment is a good thing; that it comes through growth in vocation and personal relationships; that it is opposed by such things as puritanical judgements, propriety and inhibition, restrictions of social class, greed for possessions and status, laziness, vanity, sexism; that it involves responsibility for the self and to others and the courage to oppose limiting social expectations. And, at a deeper level, as expressed in Ellie’s final imagined painting, we see again Gee’s metaphysical sense of a world in which light, in the form of human love and creativity, co-exists with darkness. The darkness is not only that of Nature’s indifference but the more active darkness of evil, personified in the book by Boggsie, a voracious sexual predator and amoral exploiter who would use others ruthlessly both for sexual pleasure and financial gain.
Familiar themes, then, and familiar modes, once again brought to life by the accomplished craftsmanship and the intense moral imagination and integrity of vision of our finest novelist working at full stretch. This new novel does not hold together quite as well nor carry quite as much social and historical resonance as Live Bodies, but it presents one of Gee’s most successful characters and an interesting sup-porting cast, as well as a wide social and historical range. It is definitely something for all those who appreciate humanist, realist fiction of individualised character to celebrate.
Lawrence Jones taught for many years in the English Department at the University of Otago.