The Silence Beyond by Michael King
Penguin $42

When Michael King died in a road accident in 2004 at the age of 58, New Zealand lost one of its most admired writers and this collection, edited by his novelist daughter Rachael King, reminds us how he earned his reputation.

In the year he died, his Penguin History of New Zealand became the country's best-selling history book but his work had by then covered a broad sweep of the country's past and present. His research and methodology earned him the respect of fellow historians but the secret of his success was his gift as a writer.

Here we find passages of which any novelist or poet might be proud. The Kuia's Dying Day, first published in Te Maori in 1973, is an intensely emotional response to people, culture and place and the valedictories to Janet Frame, Robin Morrison and Dan and Winnie Davin are beautifully crafted, deeply felt pieces.

But his sensitivity is always accompanied with critical, thoughtful analysis. His knowledge of the past was brought to bear on the present and the two essays, On Being Pakeha and Maori and Pakeha continue to have a thought-provoking relevance even for those who disagree with his conclusions.

The national preoccupation with identity is well represented in both the social comment and personal memoir selections although he does fall into the trap of ascribing to his early years a particularly New Zealand flavour when they do, in fact, often reflect common experiences of thinking young people.

What is, of course, unique to a New Zealand writer is the presence of the Maori element and, as displayed here, King was of the school that brought Maoridom into the forefront of the Pakeha mental landscape. He was later to court controversy by refusing to romanticise tribal history in writing of the fate of the Moriori.

But if King was a deeply serious writer he was also a lover of laughter. The piece on how he had variously been mistaken for Maurice Shadbolt, James Belich, Peter Jackson, Nelson Wattie and, inevitably, the comic Mike King approaches knockabout farce. He relishes other people's jokes too, retelling one of Janet Frame's best lines and the saga of the Landfall desk Frame took to with a saw.

While his credo What I Believe reveals warm humanity he was capable of handing out a smack when he felt it was deserved. Witi Ihimaera and Shadbolt are both firmly rebuked for taking a cavalier attitude to historical accuracy when writing fiction.

As is to be expected in a collection covering a long writing career, some of the pieces have a dated feel. Attitudes and emphases have changed but, as King remarks in more than one of his own pieces, it is a mistake to look at mindsets of the past through contemporary lenses.

Rachael King has done her father a service in assembling this selection, some of it previously unpublished, but she has also done readers a service in bringing the full scope of King's talents into the light again.

John Gardner is an Auckland reviewer.