On the first page of Maurice Gee's new novel, we meet a shuffling old man, making his way down Wellington's Molesworth St. A woman watches him go by. He is her brother, but he doesn't recognise her.
She seems resigned to this.
"Seems" is a word you have to use carefully when talking about Gee's characters, and especially his narrators. They tend to know themselves less well than they think they do, and they also tend to lie. As the woman, Alice Ferry, whisks us back into her childhood and begins telling us how she and her brother got to this point, it's clear she has things to hide, though whether from us or from herself is an open question.
What's less clear initially is whether we're going to care either way.
Alice is neither likeable nor easy to keep up with. She tosses off troubling observations and dense metaphors as though she were telling you the obvious, which she very much is not. Gee gives her depths and complexities of thought beyond the reach of a younger or less able writer. Listening to Alice is like listening to an elderly aunt who knows more than you do, has lived through more than you have, doesn't much care for you, and is telling you her story only because there's no one else to tell.
As it happens, and to her own surprise, Alice really is an elderly aunt.
The book pivots on the moment when a young man shows up on her doorstep, claiming to be her brother Gordon's grandson. Alice is at once horrified and overjoyed. At first she refuses to admit she had a brother. Then she refuses to admit her brother might have fathered a child. Then she pretends her brother is dead. Slowly, she lets her grand-nephew into her life, and slowly, Gee eases you into caring about her.
This is not the most accessible of Gee's books, but it's a remarkable and memorable read. All Gee's trademarks are here: Alice and Gordon's childhood was spent in Loomis, Gee's fictional analogue of Henderson, and they grew up hearing warnings about Loomis creek, one of the many oddly significant streams and rivers running through Gee's novels.
Above all, and as usual, Gee offers the suspense of watching strong characters try to come to terms with themselves. Alice and her brother are worth the effort it takes to get to know them.
* David Larsen is an Auckland reviewer.
* Penguin, $35