What a versatile chap Greg McGee is. Writer of Foreskin's Lament, one of New Zealand's most emblematic plays; pseudo-nymous author of damn compelling crime fiction; ghost writer of an outstanding biography of Richie McCaw; author of television and film scripts, plus an admirably subversive memoir. And now comes this substantial novel, niftily packaged by Auckland's Upstart Press.
Striding across three generations, six decades and two hemispheres, powered by all manner of revelations, it starts in contemporary Venice, where the "parched tongue" of land is being reclaimed by rising sea, and where a dying New Zealand father and desolate daughter have come to lay diverse ghosts.
It swoops back and forth across half a century, initially to Word War II Bari and a Kiwi soldier who's survived shrapnel, capture and the sinking of his prison ship by British torpedoes, but not the torment of his own cowardice.
Throughout the abundant episodes that follow, two countries and cultures confront or blend in numerous ways and consequences reverberate down the years: one man is lost in action, even though he returns home unscathed; another hides his name, face and nationality as he tries to make atonement.
An erratically-typed 1970s journal, featuring Red Brigade violence, Venetian patricians, callow American academics and a tormented sports coach becomes central to the narrative.
There's a firm sense of place, from South Island tiered limestone and sliding rivers to Venice's occasional oases of beauty: "iron statues of horses dancing on the water; walls of roses falling into it".
Some scenes would look great on stage or screen: an escaped POW hiding in a pit of animal excrement; a man on a crag, howling in distress; convoys of Panzers churning towards the battlefield.
There are some occasionally telegraphed romantic relationships: a gutsy Italian housekeeper, a lapsed physicist whose appeal lies partly in his exposition on wave/particle duality, a pockmarked Madonna, plus their Kiwi partners, actual or potential.
And (McGee was nearly an All Black, after all) there's an intriguing and often symbolic lot of rugby moments. Two Italian loose forwards are afraid of Sicilian witches; the Counties sub-union is formed; wire fences hold back excitable club fans.
It's a big narrative, packed with detail that nicely evokes a range of times and tastes: hashtags and relationship counsellors; tweed jacket and cigarette; the hippie trail and women's jeans so tight the wearer can't sit without help.
McGee controls things with the assurance of someone who's been writing for decades. The plot is gaunt yet speedy; characters are complex and convincing; setting is evoked deftly.
There's a satisfying move towards various absolutions; an insistence that old age isn't for sissies; an ending that implies fresh directions. A good combination.
by Greg McGee
(Upstart Press $34.99, out next week)