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Gee, Maggie 1948–

Gee, Maggie 1948–

(Maggie Mary Gee)

PERSONAL: Born November 2, 1948, in Poole, Dorset, England; daughter of Victor Valentine and Aileen Mary (Church) Gee; married Nicholas Winton Rankin, August 6, 1983; children: one daughter. Education: Somerville College, Oxford, M.A., 1970, M.Litt., 1973; Wolverhampton Polytechnic, Ph.D., 1980.

ADDRESSES: Home—London, England. Agent—c/o David Godwin Associates, 55 Monmouth St., London WC2H 9DG, England.

CAREER: Elsevier International Press, Oxford, England, editor, 1972–74; research assistant at Wolverhampton Polytechnic, 1975–79; Northern Arts writer in residence, 1996; Sussex University, visiting fellow, 1986–; writer.

MEMBER: Society of Authors, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

AWARDS, HONORS: Eastern Arts Writing Fellow, University of East Anglia, 1982; named among best young British novelists, 1983; Royal Society of Literature fellow, 1994–; shortlist, Orange Prize for Fiction, 2002, for The White Family.

WRITINGS:

Dying, in Other Words (novel), Harvester (Brighton, England), 1981, Faber (Boston, MA), 1984.

(Editor) Anthology of Writing against War: For Life on Earth, University of East Anglia (Norwich, England), 1982.

The Burning Book (novel), St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1983.

Light Years (novel), St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1985.

Grace (novel), Heinemann (London, England), 1988, Weidenfeld & Nicolson (New York, NY), 1989.

Where Are the Snows (novel), Heinemann (London, England), 1991, published as Christopher and Alexandra, Ticknor & Fields (New York, NY), 1992.

Lost Children (novel), Flamingo (London, England), 1994.

How May I Speak in My Own Voice? Language and the Forbidden (text of lecture), Birkbeck College (London, England), 1996.

The Ice People (novel), Richard Cohen Books (London, England), 1998.

The White Family (novel), Saqi Books (London, England), 2002.

The Flood (novel), Saqi Books (London, England), 2004.

My Cleaner (novel), Saqi Books (London, England), 2005.

Also author of several short stories and a radio play, "Over and Out," 1984. Contributor to Diaspora City: The London New Writing Anthology, Arcadia Books, 2003. Contributor to periodicals, including Daily Telegraph, Sunday Times (London), and Times Literary Supplement.

SIDELIGHTS: Maggie Gee has a reputation as an original and versatile voice in British literature. Her writings have earned comparisons to those of such acclaimed authors as Virginia Woolf, Vladimir Nabokov, and Samuel Beckett, whom she considers her "chief twentieth-century models," she told Contemporary Novelists. Gee's work has not been confined to any single genre; she has used the conventions of crime novels and sci-ence fiction, for instance, and has established herself as a technically adept experimentalist whose works are introspective, dark, and wryly humorous.

"Gee's importance as a novelist rests on her stylistic innovations and choices of subject matter, which is often political: Gee is, for example, a fierce opponent of nuclear armament," reported Martha Genn in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. Gee is also concerned with the environment, race and gender relations, and distinctions between the rich and the poor. Genn noted that Gee is "inventive and artful in the construction of narrative" and that her novels "vary in genre and yet frequently share concerns, including most notably the lasting, profound, and unpredictable effects of the actions and events of individual lives on surrounding persons and sequences of events."

Gee's debut novel, Dying, in Other Words, is an unusual thriller populated by a vast array of eccentric characters, including a murderous milkman. Published in 1981, the book begins with a disclaimer by Gee in which she denies that the work is "a serious novel." Dying, in Other Words centers on the mysterious death of young writer Moira Penny. Moira's naked body is found outside the window of her Oxford flat—she has apparently committed suicide. As an inordinate number of the dead woman's acquaintances also die under strange circumstances, authorities begin to suspect foul play in Moira's case. An ensuing investigation reveals the true and unexpected nature of Moira's death.

"Penny's suicide is dropped, as it were, into the pool of lives around her and the ripples spread and impinge on the lives of others and, what makes the novel remarkable, on the continuum of the past and present of those lives," related a contributor to Contemporary Novelists. Commenting in the Times Literary Supplement on the frequent manipulation of narrative prose and monologue in Dying, in Other Words, Stoddard Martin remarked, "Some of the surrealistic scenery is vivid, but the thickets surrounding are impenetrable." While some other critics pointed to the novel's extreme self-consciousness and fragmentation as a source of obscurity, they also thought that Gee's first work had brought a provocative new twist to the thriller genre. In a review for the Toronto Globe and Mail, Douglas Hill wrote that Dying, in Other Words possesses "a cosmic implication, the death of a planet, the extinction of humanity as the reality of everyday imagination. Death and fiction, for Gee, are inseparable."

Gee continues her thematic exploration of death in her 1983 work, an apocalyptic novel titled The Burning Book, which uses the genre of the sprawling family saga. Tracing four generations of an English family through both world wars, The Burning Book focuses on ordinary people struggling to exist in a world that hovers on the threshold of nuclear destruction. Gee weaves evocations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki into her narrative, imbuing the world of the novel with a sense of bleakness and impending doom. The uninspired, unfulfilled characters—lacking a sense of political and social consciousness—become victims of their own self-absorption and are ultimately annihilated.

Although some reviewers found the text difficult, The Burning Book received praise as well. Linda Taylor, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, deemed it "an odd kind of novel but a marvelously cogent antiwar statement." The Contemporary Novelists essayist noted, "As a nuclear warning the book certainly succeeds; and it succeeds as a work of literature as well." Especially impressed by Gee's descriptive powers, attention to detail, and skillful infusion of the work with a haunting sense of urgency, New York Times Book Review contributor Ronald De Feo observed, "At its best, it is a wonderfully inventive saga of dreams and disillusionment." The reviewer added that The Burning Book's "tragic ending is suggestively, almost poetically conveyed, and it is terribly affecting."

Gee's next novel, a touchingly humorous romance titled Light Years, chronicles a year in the lives of a middle-aged husband and wife following their breakup. The book's construction—fifty-five chapters divided into twelve sections—mirrors the year of their estrangement. During this time, each engages in a superficial affair, but the self-centered Harold and spoiled, rich Lottie are reunited by the novel's end. In a review for the Spectator, Christopher Hawtree theorized that "the effect of Light Years is to convey the gravitational forces which, however much they are impeded and however ill-matched the participants might appear, bring people together."

Some critics deemed the plot of Light Years overly contrived, but some praised the book as having vivid character portraits and effortless narrative technique. Dictionary of Literary Biography's Henn remarked, "Though Harold and especially Lottie are problematic people, they are rounded and reasonably relatable. While the novel still possesses a complex structure, it is far easier to comprehend than the intricacies of her first novels." Roz Kaveney, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, concluded: "This is so fine a novel because so completely a planned and crafted one…. The book's posed philosophical view pile[s] up all of human possibility and perception as a barrier against the cold and the dark."

Grace is a thriller with an antinuclear theme; it was inspired by the murder in 1984 of antinuclear activist Hilda Murrell. Its primary characters are an unconventional eighty-five-year-old woman, Grace Stirling, who is a veteran supporter of liberal causes, and her niece Paula Timms, a writer who is involved in the antinuclear movement and is working on a book about Murrell. A British government agent is spying on them, even tailing them on trips. More than Murrell's murder, Henn noted, "the most significant crime in the context of the novel … is the global perpetuation of nuclear radiation through nuclear energy and armaments."

Henn thought the novel "occasionally stretches credibility" in pursuit of its political agenda. The Contemporary Novelists essayist, though, found Grace "an exciting and considerable advance in the art of Gee's novels," as "the threads of the story and the lives they describe gradually and skillfully converge and inter-mesh" while illuminating Gee's antinuclear theme, which is "fundamental to the story."

Where Are the Snows is about a wealthy, heedless, globe-trotting couple, Christopher and Alexandra Court (whose first names provide the title for the U.S. edition). They bring unhappiness to most of the people in their lives, including their son and daughter, who are teenagers when Christopher and Alexandra take off on an extended journey and grow to troubled adulthood in their parents' absence. The Courts also bring unhappiness to each other, with Alexandra having an extramarital affair and Christopher shooting her lover. And despite all their travels, they miss their chance to see snow, which is vanishing because of global warming.

"The slow but steady eradication from the earth of snowfall mirrors the slow corruption of earthly and personal purity," explained Henn. A Publishers Weekly reviewer commented that some readers may find it hard to care about the Courts, but Henn remarked, "It is a measure of Gee's talent that readers are consistently concerned about the fates of her major characters, despite the fact that they are almost always unlikable." The Publishers Weekly critic praised the novel overall, calling it "a memorable tale" written "in stylish prose."

In Lost Children, it is a child who leaves the parents behind to deal with the loss. Sixteen-year-old Zoe Bennett runs away from home, shocking her mother, Alma, who has always believed their relationship to be an uncommonly good one. The strain leads Alma to separate from her husband, Paul, and further distances her from their law-student son, Adam, to whom she has never been close. Alma goes into therapy "to explore her childhood as a means of rediscovering the self she lost during marriage and motherhood," reported Mary Scott in New Statesman and Society. Therapy leads her to think she may have been sexually abused in girlhood, by her father, her stepfather, or perhaps a stranger; she believes her mother let her down in some way but fails to recognize her own imperfections as a mother to Adam and Zoe.

"The implication of the novel's title," noted Henn, "is that Adam and Zoe are not the novel's only lost children but that all of the characters could be considered as such." Isobel Armstrong, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, pointed out that the lost children include "the children our past selves were" and "the actual children, unparented, deprived, frequently abused, who inhabit the urban London of our present." Henn found it typical of Gee that her "focus on individuals takes place simultaneously with her investigation of some breakdown of the social order—primarily homelessness," as numerous homeless people are camped near the London real estate office where Alma works. Gee presents the plight of these people against the background of the self-centered and materialistic attitudes of Alma's coworkers, whom Armstrong described as "small-time yuppies." Armstrong praised Gee's "brilliantly evoked" character portraits and her "cool, lucid writing," concluding that Lost Children is a "searching and ambitious novel."

In The Ice People, Gee deals with social issues through the science fiction genre. The novel is set in England the middle of the twenty-first century, when a new ice age is on its way. Also in this period, the services once provided by the government have been privatized; disease has devastated the population; class distinctions are sharper than ever; most people are deeply apathetic about politics; and the sexes are largely segregated, voluntarily. For a time, the book's main character and narrator, Saul, is an exception to the latter trend, living with a woman named Sarah. But Saul and Sarah eventually break up, and she moves to a women's community, bringing along their son, Luke. Saul then kidnaps Luke and takes him on a journey with the intended destination of Africa, a location attractive to many so-called ice people from northern lands.

The title also refers, however, to "the present chilly state of love," commented Eric Korn in the Times Literary Supplement. Gee "distributes the blame equitably" to both sexes, Korn reported, showing both Saul's and Sarah's flaws and frailties. He called the novel "stirring, witty, beautifully written" and "mordantly comic, unsparing, politically savvy, a beautifully clear and bracingly nasty vision," concluding, "Anyone who has ever been involved in human relations must take it personally."

Race relations are the concern of The White Family, set in a working-class London neighborhood, once exclusively white but now attracting numerous new black and Asian residents, many of them from England's former colonies. The whites—including the Whites, the novel's central family—have been "shocked to find that the Empire had landed on their doorstep," Heather Clark explained in the Times Literary Supplement. The neighborhood's changing complexion brings varying responses from the members of the White family—park groundskeeper Alfred; his homemaker wife, May; and their three adult children. Racism brews in some of them, acceptance in others, and emotional barriers go up between them.

Gee uses multiple narrators, a device that generally "enriches our understanding of the Whites' predicament," Clark observed, although she thought the shifts occasionally distracting. She also found "much to admire in the way the novel both implicates and absolves the Whites of their transgressions," as "Gee moves skillfully between compassion and disgust." In London's Sunday Times, Margaret Walters wrote that "although Gee's novel adds up to a telling indictment of blind prejudice, she is too fine a writer to lapse into simple pessimism," with some characters "allowed happy or, rather, hopeful, endings." Walters summed up the book as "somberly perceptive" and Gee as "one of our most ambitious and challenging novelists."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

BOOKS

Contemporary Novelists, 7th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2001.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 207: British Novelists since 1960, Third Series, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1999, pp. 123-130.

PERIODICALS

Globe and Mail (Toronto), February 16, 1985.

New Statesman and Society, April 22, 1994, Mary Scott, review of Lost Children, p. 48.

New York Times Book Review, October 14, 1984.

Publishers Weekly, December 13, 1991, review of Christopher and Alexandra, p. 46.

Spectator, September 24, 1983, October 5, 1985.

Sunday Times (London), May 12, 2002, Margaret Walters, "Dark Visions of a Black and White World," p. 48.

Times Literary Supplement, July 17, 1981; September 23, 1983; October 4, 1985; April 29, 1994, Isobel Armstrong, "Bloody Parents," p. 20; October 2, 1998, Eric Korn, "Cold Comforts," p. 25; May 3, 2002, Heather Clark, "Empire on the Doorstep," p. 23.

Washington Post, May 2, 1986.

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