The mundane and the marvellous, Adrienne Gavin

Marvellous Codes: The Fiction of Margaret Mahy
ed Elizabeth Hale and Sarah Fiona Winters
Victoria University Press, $39.95,
ISBN 0864735162

Any addition to critical publications on Margaret Mahy is to be welcomed. Elizabeth Hale’s and Sarah Fiona Winters’ Marvellous Codes: The Fiction of Margaret Mahy joins Tessa Duder’s Margaret Mahy: A Writer’s Life (2005) and Mahy’s own A Dissolving Ghost: Essays and More (2000) as among the few books to which Mahy aficionados can turn. It is a very useful volume of 11 critical essays, which rightly positions Mahy as “one of New Zealand’s greatest living writers of fiction”.

Titled after a section in “A Dissolving Ghost”, Mahy’s essay on truth in children’s books and lives, Marvellous Codes emphasises both the marvellous – in the sense of magical, supernatural, fantastic – within Mahy’s writing and the marvellousness of it. As the introduction outlines, the essays decode Mahy’s fiction in different ways and encourage new readings or “recodings” of her work. The book focuses on the magical quality of Mahy’s fictions not simply in terms of the magical events she writes about but also the magic of her “extraordinary voice”, which “yokes the mundane and the marvellous, the real and the fantastic”.

Four thematically defined sections are listed in the table of contents as structuring the collection, although oddly in the body of the book (perhaps because of pressures on space) there are no titles or pages indicating where the sections begin or end. The first of these sections, “Adolescence”, contains three essays examining Mahy’s depiction of teenage experience in her young adult fiction. In “‘Solid All the Way Through’: Margaret Mahy’s Ordinary Witches”, Alison Waller interestingly discusses the ways in which The Haunting, The Changeover, and The Tricksters reflect, adapt or reject historical and literary patterns of witchcraft. Mahy’s female witches, Waller shows, are empowered and liberated by their magical powers, but this magic is also symbolic of a more ordinary “modern vision of the developing teenager”.

In “Contagious Knowledge: Margaret Mahy and the Adolescent Novel”, Anna Smith develops a psychoanalytically lensed reading. This examines physical sensations and transformation of bodily perceptions during adolescence and discusses the relationship between nature and fantasy, the real and the true. Smith shows that the female adolescent heroines of The Changeover, The Other Side of Silence, and The Tricksters “experience the rapture of new skin”, which is made incarnate and contagious through the imagination. Also drawing on psychoanalytical theory, Claudia Marquis’ “Ariadne ‘Down Under’: Margaret Mahy’s The Tricksters” analyses The Trickster’s New Zealand setting, the role of myth, and protagonist Harry (Ariadne) Hamilton’s uncovering and revelation of secrets and of her own powers.

Mahy’s widely admired YA novels and her portrayal of adolescence, female characters and intertwinings of fantasy and realism understandably receive the bulk of attention in this book as they have done more widely in Mahy criticism. For critical readers looking for something less analysed in Mahy, the most innovative and potentially provocative section of Marvellous Codes may be the second section titled “Marginality”, which highlights the ways in which Mahy reveals marginalised characters. The two essays in this section include discussion of Mahy’s lesser addressed texts for younger readers and centre on less frequently discussed topics. Lorinda B Cohoon’s “Pirate Parenting in Margaret Mahy’s Middle-Grade Readers” draws on queer theory and the Bakhtinian concept of the carnivalesque in a thoughtful examination of gender roles, sexuality identity, and “pirate parenting” (where characters steal parenting roles from heteronormative/biological parents) in two of Mahy’s comic adventures: Tingleberries, Tuckertubs and Telephones and The Pirate Uncle.

In “Setting Free: Margaret Mahy and Disability”, Kathy Saunders uses the social model of disability. (The social model stresses the social consequences of having a disability as opposed to a medical model which sites disability in the impairment itself.) Predicated on the concept of texts as providers of role models for child readers rather than on analysis of Mahy’s texts as literature per se, the essay argues that while Mahy includes illness and/or disability in roughly one quarter of her texts, there are questions as to how challenging to disablist notions her work is.

The three essays comprising the third section, “Storytelling”, address Mahy’s concerns with narrative. Lisa Scally’s “‘Telling Stories of Desire’: The Power of Authorship in The Changeover and The Amber Spyglass” compares the significance of storytelling and desire in novels by Mahy and Philip Pullman. Scally shows that both authors mix realism and fantasy and use storytelling characters who are figuring out their familial and social positioning but are also learning about story’s roles in truth and lies.

Kathryn Walls in “‘True-seeming lyes’ in Margaret Mahy’s Fiction” thoughtfully and lucidly examines truth in Mahy’s writings, a concept that is touched on in many of the essays in the collection. She adeptly argues that The Catalogue of the Universe, Memory, and Aliens in the Family reveal a paradoxical disparity between Mahy’s visionary “dissolving ghost” concept of truth as expressed in her critical writings and her empirical literary portrayal of truth which warns against telling lies.

Sam Hester’s “The Wobble in the Symmetry: The Narrator’s Role in The Catalogue of the Universe” reveals the unnamed narrator of Mahy’s novel to be not only the teller of the story but also, on a higher level, an ironic, tender, motherly commentator on the action she reveals.

The fourth, but in many ways most intriguing section, especially for overseas readers, is titled “New Zealand”. Diane Hebley’s “‘A Fertility and Felicity and Ferocity of Invention’: New Zealand Landscapes in Margaret Mahy’s Young Adult Novels” analyses Mahy’s fictional reflections of the centrality of beachscapes and volcanic activity in the New Zealand literary consciousness. The essay argues that even in city-set novels Mahy’s fictions are rooted in New Zealand landscapes which accentuate the merged but also dislocated fault-lines in the heritage of the nation and in the relationship between truth and reality.

In “Gardening in Eden: Margaret Mahy’s Postcolonial Ghosts and the New Zealand Landscape” Ruth P Feingold provides a postcolonial reading of The Tricksters. Examining the relationship between past and present, she shows that the ghost of the Hamilton’s holiday home also symbolises New Zealand’s history of British colonisation.

Mary E Hine in “Rewriting Mahy’s The Tricksters: Exploring Sense of Place and Fictional Space Through Adaptation and Imitation” uses creative critical writing to examine what textual transformation or “ransacking the text” reveals about Mahy’s novel. Hine first re-visions The Tricksters by rewriting some of it as a studio play in order to examine what is revealed when its “narrative sense of place turns into a theatrical sense of space”. Secondly, the novel is “written through” Alan Garner’s The Owl Service. Christmas-set novels, one New Zealand one Welsh, both books mix pagan and Christian elements, are concerned with past and present and with place. Hine died before completing the final drafts of this unusual and creative essay, which was completed by Rob Pope (interestingly the only male author/editor in the collection) and Alison Waller.

In her introduction to the volume, Elizabeth Hale recalls, aged 14, her thrill in buying a hardback copy of The Changeover, noting: “its pages were a smooth, gleaming white, and were bound firmly into its dark cover.” It is perhaps an unfortunate irony therefore that the binding of the review copy of Marvellous Codes had excess glue and looseness at front and rear. It would have been very useful, too, to have had a bibliography of critical works on Mahy at the end of the volume. Nevertheless these factors should not detract from the book’s content which is astute, insightful and usefully various in focus.

Sarah Fiona Winters in her afterword remarks on the surprising and unwarranted way in which Mahy’s work has been comparatively marginalised by the “New Zealand critical establishment”. This is not so clearly the case more widely in the world nor can it remain long so in New Zealand. Mahy is the recipient of the 2006 Hans Christian Andersen Author Award, which is the premier writing prize for children’s authors, effectively the “Nobel Prize” of lifetime achievement in children’s literature. Her fiction is also currently being written about in PhD dissertations, taught in universities and schools, and spoken about at children’s literature conferences around the globe. Such recognition makes it safe to predict that critical attention to Mahy’s work will expand in the years ahead. The introduction to Marvellous Codes ends with the hope that the volume’s essays “will inspire a proliferation of further readings in their turn”. This is a wish that those with an interest in Mahy will share.


Adrienne Gavin, New Zealand author of Dark Horse: A Life of Anna Sewell, is a university lecturer in Britain where she has taught Mahy’s works for over a decade.


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