Tessa Duder: Margaret Mahy: A Writer's Life

By David Hill, Reviewed by David Hill

There are certain words I vowed I would never use in a review. But if "genius" means someone whose work has something almost numinous about it, then Margaret Mahy qualifies as a genius.

I vowed also that I would never write a rave. But Tessa Duder's affectionate (she calls her subject "Margaret", and it sounds just right), authoritative literary portrait is an absolute cracker.

It's substantial — 300-plus pages — and scholarly as well as spirited. There are notes, sources, bibliographies. There are contributions from scores of book people.

Have we ever had a writer with such imaginative intensity as Margaret Mahy? You read a story by her excellent peer Joy Cowley and feel: "Why didn't I think of that?" You read one by Margaret Mahy and feel: "How does someone think of that?"

This book does full justice to a wonderful, connecting, collecting mind. This is the Mahy who, when in Malaysia, found that a leech had taken up residence on her leg. What did she do? She went to a bookshop and bought everything she could find on leeches.

Some events in her life have become almost legendary: the child reading as she rode her bike to school in Whakatane; the librarian who knew everything on every shelf; the solo parent bringing up two girls; the New York publisher discovering A Lion in the Meadow and promptly sending the author a cheque for US$1000 ($1370); the life in Governors Bay with no running water or inside toilet.

Duder adds other events. Mahy made up her first fiction as a 3-year-old crouched under the ironing board. Stories made her yearn "to become astonishing". King Solomon's Mines turned her permanently towards a belief that all life is potentially An Adventure.

Tessa Duder's journalistic experience and narrative skills mean a book that fair bounds along. She makes rich and extensive use of Mahy's own voice — wondering, weaving, discovering. It's the sort of voice, Mahy herself once said, that you'd expect to hear reading recipes on the radio.

After her first works in the School Journal, and after her New York publisher came to New Zealand to see for herself ("God, this is the end of the world! They don't even recognise American Express!"), the reputation of Margaret Mahy the picture-book writer began to soar.

Duder adroitly links these books' themes: magic, transformation, the delight in language as incantation; the universal rather than specifically New Zealand setting — yes, Mahy has taken stick for this. Then comes the movement to young adults' and children's novels. Her first two "chapter books" won the Carnegie Medal, the children's literature equivalent of the Booker. It was amazing; unheard of.

And it makes you wonder if New Zealanders really understand how famous Margaret Mahy is. She has been shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal with other books. She has been nominated "twice for the Hans Christian Anderson Award — the Little Nobel", as Duder nicely puts it. She is a member of the Order of New Zealand and an honorary Doctor of Letters. Some of her books have been translated into 15 languages.

Tessa Duder, a committed campaigner for children's books, affirms the significance of such achievements. She has good, stroppy points to make about academic uninterest or condescension, and about the importance — the absolute necessity — of children reading their country's fiction.

She provides lucid summaries of the novels from the last two decades, the writing for TV, the increasing role of Margaret Mahy the megaburst public speaker. She stresses the perceptiveness and wit of Mahy's essays on writing, reading, inventing. She notes that here is a writer of world status who still gets up at 4.45 most mornings to begin work.

The book is bang up-to-date and up to the mark. There's a totally beautiful poem to end it and an outstanding read before you reach that poem.

* Harper Collins, $39.95

* David Hill is a Taranaki writer.

 

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