Kathryn Walls identifies the realism beneath Mahy’s magic.
Margaret Mahy has been repeatedly described as “magical” or “marvellous”, her fiction as “fantastic.” These conveniently alliterating adjectives seem apt partly because so much of Mahy’s work is classifiable as fantasy, and partly because they mean (according to what the OED calls “trivial usage”) “good beyond expectation.” But they also pigeonhole Mahy in a way that is not so much trivial as trivialising, turning her into the literary world’s answer to “WOW” – the World of Wearable Arts.
True, Mahy conspired in the creation of her authorial image as a fairy-godmother. She did so, famously, by visiting schools wearing a multi-coloured wig. In the very different context of her public addresses, too, she created an equivalent impression. Her fiction, as she so frequently represented it, was the product of her desire to lend life what she has called a “desirable” form, a form consistent with a “truth” that is visionary rather than factual. Cynics might be inclined, on such a basis, to dismiss Mahy’s fiction as a tissue of comforting lies. But it is no such thing. Mahy’s work exhibits a strong and often discomfiting engagement with reality.
Mahy was once viewed as a writer unconcerned with her native country, thanks partly to the fact that the first half-dozen of her stories to achieve commercial publication (A Lion in the Meadow, 1969, among them) were located in a fantasy world. These stories were, moreover, published abroad – by Franklin Watts (USA) and Dent (UK). And yet some of the earliest stories and poems reflect a distinctly New Zealand environment. The poem “Christmas Day in New Zealand”, for instance, opens with “Our Christmas Day is blue and gold/And warm our Christmas night”, and ends by gently mocking the recidivist Christmas cards upon which “robins [we] have never seen/Pipe out a Christmas call”. This poem, first published in the School Journal in 1968, offers a more interesting view of New Zealand than any stuffed with native birds.
Mahy appears, however, to have accepted the parochial view of her as a writer who had spurned her own country. Thanks to her childhood immersion in the English classics, she had (according to the postscript appended to The Changeover when it was republished in 2003) suffered an “imaginative displacement” that prevented her from writing about New Zealand. She credited The Changeover (1984) with having “repaired” that displacement. The setting of the novel (the fictional Gardendale) is, accordingly, an accurate reflection of the Christchurch suburb of Bishopdale (where Mahy once worked as a librarian). Furthermore, the Victorian home of the pioneering Bishop family (after whom Bishopdale was named) is the model for the novel’s beautiful “Janua Caeli”, ancestral home of the “Carlisles” (who have, we are told – despite their being witches – “a place in local history”). Local history, testifying to pioneer greed, also informs The Tricksters (1986), Aliens in the Family (1986) and Kaitangata Twitch (2005).
Mahy’s novels are rather full of greedy people – and needy people too. We should perhaps recall that Mahy was born just one year after the election of the First Labour Government, which was to remain in power throughout her childhood, and which transformed New Zealand bit by bit into a welfare state. Mahy has been alert to the increasing gap between rich and poor which is now taken for granted by some as a fact of life. Angela, heroine of Catalogue of the Universe (1985), embarrassed by the dilapidated house that she lives in with her single mother, peers enviously into the property of her natural father:
From the public footpath where anyone was allowed to stand and stare, she had stared up over the big green lawns, seen the pillared front door of his house, noted the swimming pool, the bricked-in barbecue area, the well-kept tennis court of his very expensive house.
The hero of 24 Hours (2000) encounters homeless children inhabiting an inner-city cemetery, orphaned sisters living in a shabby rooming house, and – in significant contrast – property developers. He visits the country estate of the latter during a barbecue overflowing with good food and wine.
In virtually all Mahy’s novels, the wealthy tend to be emotionally inadequate. The poor, meantime, are liable to be vindictive bullies and even criminals (like Nev and Spike in Memory, 1987). As for the “upwardly mobile” (like the ambitious lecturer Annie Rapper in The Other Side of Silence, 1995), they are tempted to sacrifice their children on the altar of prosperity.
The challenge faced by Mahy’s young-adult protagonists is to rise above the unhealthy mentalities contingent upon their particular socio-economic station. They do not, on the whole, take the path of political protest – although Mahy certainly acknowledges the existence of protest movements, as we shall see. The question of whether land can be owned is raised, seemingly in passing, in Aliens and The Tricksters – and it is the mainspring of Kaitangata Twitch.
Mahy’s satirical treatment of middle-class vices and follies is consistent with her depiction of the socio-economic divide. Jack Hamilton, father of the heroine of The Tricksters, is one of her semi-bohemians. We learn that he has, during a phase of “wife-swapping” parties, fathered a child by his eldest daughter’s best friend. Jack is an academic, and academics are frequently targeted by Mahy. Memory opens with the arrival of Jonny, its drunk and distressed working-class Colville (ie Sydenham) -raised hero, at the home of Carl and Ruth Benedicta, during a “Maori Land Rights Party”. Carl, we are told, is “a doctor of philosophy”, and Ruth a pathologist. Self-regardingly anti-racist, the eminently well-educated and well-heeled Benedictas have adopted two olive-skinned babies (one is Maori), and brought them up as twins. Ruth refers snobbishly to the TV advertisement in which Jonny has performed as a tap-dancer. A psychologist friend drives Jonny into town in his Alpha Romeo, dropping him off on a Colville traffic island.
Such are the contexts in which Mahy’s adolescent protagonists survive their identity crises. Indeed, their social and psychological predicaments tend to overlap. Laura, heroine of The Changeover (1984), suffers not only the text-book psychological consequences of the separation of her parents, but also its severe economic consequences. Her mother must work to pay the bills, which means that Laura has to take inordinate responsibility for her toddler brother (whose mysterious illness lies at the heart of the novel).
Mental and psychological afflictions figure largely in Mahy’s fiction. We encounter epilepsy and Alzheimer’s, and there are three sisters (in 24 Hours) whose evidently psychotic father has murdered their mother and brothers. As for the adolescent protagonists, they display (as demonstrated by Saskia Voorendt in her 2007 MA thesis) an array of conditions that Mahy must have studied. These include “Depersonalisation” (Laura in The Changeover), “Intermittent Explosive Disorder” (Jonny in Memory) and suicidal depression – to which I shall return.
Interestingly, however, the psychological fragility of Mahy’s main characters tends to escape our attention. This is partly because their stories are filtered through them, so that it is hard for us to see their delusions as such. It is also because the novels are, at the same time, written in the third person – by a warm, witty and apparently reliable author (or, I should say, authorial persona) who never questions the perceptions of her central protagonists.
Mahy’s preoccupation with psychological fragility is suggestive in relation to the fantasy dimension of her work. The (wealthy) parents of Anthea, the main character of Dangerous Spaces (1991), have drowned. Anthea is now living with kind but distracted relations in an incompletely renovated farmhouse. The action is driven by Anthea’s excursions into another world, “Viridian.” At one point Anthea returns with a scratched wrist, which is taken by her cousin as proof of the objectivity of Viridian, and (in my experience) by readers in general as attesting to the novel’s status as a work of fantasy. What the scratches really tell us, however, is that Anthea is suicidal. Indeed, Viridian (which she first experienced as a refuge) begins to close in on her, and she realises that she must abandon it or die. Dangerous Spaces may therefore be read as a more or less realistic novel about a traumatised girl who has disengaged from reality.
Mahy’s celebrated use of fantasy and her (not so celebrated) realism (realism that captures “the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks/That flesh is heir to”) are two sides of the same coin.