This novel by Maurice Gee is very much a perceptive examination of New Zealand and New Zealanders, as well as the life story, the search for identity of the protagonist.
Ranging from the Hutt Valley in the 1950s, to Wellington, to Takaka and Nelson the landscapes are the backdrops for the events in Ellie's life, but also for the post-WWII defining aspects of New Zealand’s social change: sexual repression and liberation, Vietnam, the “OE”, the Muldoon years, the Springbok tour, Rogernomics, escape to a lifestyle block in the country ...
A true test of character strength is to what extent people can define themselves in relation to others. "Just be yourself, then nothing can go wrong," Ellie's mother advises her. Despite this, she effaces her own personality, absorbed for decades by her new husband and his narrow-minded religion.
Ellie on the other hand goes on a journey to find herself, making plenty of false turns and mistakes on the way. While she drifts through New Zealand, from librarian, to work with a sheep-shearing gang, to apple-picker, to hippie on a commune, to mother, to partner of a self-centred writer, to artist, she manages not to lose her sense of self.
She looks always for love, although not at any price, and abandons lovers who threaten her freedom of choice, to be who she wants to be. Essentially a loner with the driven nature of a true artist, she is not really a likeable character, though when she finally finds the self-knowledge and discipline to become a successful painter, she can at last make space in her life for the shadow man who haunted her thoughts over the years.
This is my no means an easy read, but compelling and well worth the effort.
Reviewed by Anneke a Campo.
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