- Becoming New Zealand Writers:Margaret Mahy and The Tricksters’ Harry Hamilton
“New Zealand’s most famous writer is also a writer whose work is in so many respects ardently un-New Zealand—or at least ardently not the New Zealand we have, over time, assumed is the proper subject and setting for our fiction,” writes New Zealand author Kate De Goldi of Margaret Mahy (272). The New Zealandness of her work was an issue to which Mahy gave much thought, and she responded to suggestions that she was not writing of her own country by stating: “I’d like to speak up perhaps for some of the things I’m doing when I write. I feel they’re just as ‘New Zealand’ as anything else” (qtd. in Duder 148). It is widely acknowledged, however, that her work became increasingly “New Zealand” in the 1980s when she started producing young adult fiction. Junior and teenage novels including The Changeover (1984), The Catalogue of the Universe (1985), Aliens in the Family (1986), The Tricksters (1986), Memory (1987), and Underrunners (1992) use New Zealand city, bush, or beach settings. This pattern continues in later novels such as the city-set 24 Hours (2000) and the land-focused Kaitangata Twitch (2005) in which threatened development of Kaitangata island is as central as the “twitch” or seismic tremors that run through both Mahy’s novels and her images of literary creation.
Critics who discuss the New Zealandness of Mahy’s work frequently focus on her depiction of landscape, often connecting it with historical, postcolonial, geographical, or supernatural issues. Diane Hebley, for example, writes of the ways in which “Mahy contributes to a valuable sense of national identity for New Zealanders” through young adult fiction in which “[r]ecognisable seascapes and landscapes with linear dimensions and seismic faultlines become associated with distinctions between truth and illusion, reality and imagination, to express her perception of human experience in this land” (207). Examining landscape in The Tricksters, Ruth P. Feingold suggests that the novel’s “chief ghost could be said to [End Page 166] be New Zealand’s colonial past. … It is not until the novel’s contemporary Kiwis come to terms with their national and cultural identity that the ghosts of more private dislocations can be laid to rest” (211). Rose Lovell-Smith, who explores the “Gothic beach” in The Tricksters, also considers the Māori elements in Mahy’s work, as do Sarah Fiona Winters and Geoffrey Miles, while Kathryn Walls reads Mahy’s young adult fiction as “embody[ing] a socialist critique of New Zealand” (112).
Clare Bradford and Claudia Marquis have recently commented on more intangible New Zealandness in Mahy’s work. Bradford notes that although Mahy’s picture books “do not describe New Zealand landscapes, they evoke ways of thinking and behaving which suggest particular cultural formations” and “work to place protagonists in New Zealand in ways which may elude foreign readers” (114). Marquis similarly observes:
[w]hen I turn to Mahy’s books, I am struck time after time by the local idiom and the familiar rhythms of daily experience—Michel de Certeau’s “walking spatiality.” These seem to me to compose, at the level of the text, a “world” that is somehow New Zealand. … before it is anywhere else, in the imagination, recomposed by its various readers.(“A Very Mysterious” 108–9)
Such literary criticism is important in claiming Mahy as “a New Zealand writer,” by which is meant here not simply a writer who is a New Zealander or who lives in, or writes about, New Zealand, but a writer whose literary imagination has an often hard won New Zealand perspective, whether or not New Zealand is overtly described in his or her texts.
What has been less examined are the ways in which Mahy’s fiction reveals the process of becoming a New Zealand writer and of acquiring, or realizing, a New Zealand literary imagination. As this essay discusses, Mahy’s most “ardently New Zealand” novel, The Tricksters, is a pivotal work in this regard, presenting through the perceptions of its seventeen-year-old writer protagonist Harry (Ariadne) Hamilton an allegorized version of the challenges...