There are no New Zealand city novels that rival works like John Mulgan’s Man alone (1939) and Jane Mander’s The story of a New Zealand river (1920). These have rural settings and reinforce the importance of the rural dimension of New Zealand society. When characters, such as Mulgan’s Johnson, visit the city it is often only to confirm they do not belong:
He meant to stay in Auckland and see city life, but when he got there he didn’t like it. It was too noisy after the country, and the summer was coming in and the air smelt good from the hills west of the city and the sunlight splendid on the blue Coromandel range.1
City’s dark side
When novelists have explored city life, they have tended to focus on its darker side, such as social inequality and dysfunction, melancholy and alienation. John A. Lee’s semi-autobiographical Children of the poor (1934) falls into this genre. It follows child protagonist Albany Porcello’s negotiation of the mean streets of 1890s Dunedin and the brutal consequences of his fall into petty crime. Similarly, Robin Hyde’s semi-autobiographical The godwits fly (1937) charts a working-class upbringing, this time in 1910s Wellington. The work is notable for its rich descriptions of family relationships – characterised by dysfunction – and evocative images of city spaces and life.
In Maurice Shadbolt’s Strangers and journeys (1972) idealist Bill Freeman envisages an egalitarian and just city. This vision is lost during the 1932 Queen Street riots, when police violently suppress the protests of Auckland’s hungry unemployed. Bill feels alienated from the complacent suburban majority who recoil from social justice.
Oracles and m iracles
Historian Steven Eldred-Grigg’s 1987 novel Oracles and miracles blurred the lines between fiction and fact. It realistically charts the lives of two imaginary twin girls born into working-class Christchurch in 1929. The novel is a damning indictment of the city’s rigid class system – if not the city itself. But it was a hit with readers and also became a popular stage play.
Noel Hilliard’s writing also has themes of isolation and melancholy. His first novel, Maori girl (1960), created controversy because it depicted the racial discrimination encountered by a young Māori woman, Netta, who moves from the countryside to Wellington. In Maori woman (1974) he examines the alienation of city life: Netta ‘had never accustomed herself to the feeling of insignificance in a busy street’.2 In returning to the country, she seeks relief from city loneliness.
In the 1970s suburbia was in writers’ sights. Margaret Sutherland’s The love contract (1976) follows Kate and Rex Goodman’s first decade of marriage in the sparkling new suburb of ‘Comfrey’. Sutherland canvasses a wide range of issues: social conformity, loss of religious faith, materialism, arrival of children, suburban neurosis and adultery. In Living in the Maniototo (1979), Janet Frame satirises the fictional suburb of Blenheim on Auckland’s North Shore, to savage effect: ‘Blenheim. The disinherited suburb-city where the largest, most impressive building is not a cathedral, a community hall, concert hall or theatre, but a shopping mall.’3
A sense of place
Although few novelists have openly celebrated city life, writers such as Maurice Gee show a strong connection to place. Many of his novels are set in West Auckland, where he grew up. His work maps its transformation from wilderness to market garden, to suburbia.
It is perhaps short-story writers who have provided the most sympathetic images of city life. Katherine Mansfield’s stories of life in Edwardian Wellington show empathy for both her sometimes quirky characters and the environments they inhabit.
Like Noel Hilliard’s, Witi Ihimaera’s writing has tackled post-1960 Māori urbanisation, but he focuses less on alienation than on the magnetism and modernity of cities. His 1977 story ‘Follow the yellow brick road’ traces a family’s journey from the rural East Coast to the ‘emerald city’, Wellington. In ‘The escalator’ a new arrival freezes at the foot of an escalator. Coaxed on by family and the crowd she eventually overcomes her fear and takes the required step.