Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume. 34, Number 10. 1971
Books: — Allen Adair
One of the most interesting features of Jane Mander's Allen Adair is that it is a work of New Zealand fiction which has been out of print for approximately the last 46 years. Originally published in 1925, we are told in the introduction by Dorothea Turner that "New Zealand of the 1920's had so poor an appetite for its own literature that Allen Adair was unable to establish itself or to materially improve Jane Mander's local reputation, and by the time interest in regional fiction was active copies were unobtainable." A second point which highlights the interest value of the book and is undoubtedly related to its prolonged hibernation, is the relative obscurity of its authoress in the lists of New Zealand fiction writers. Therefore, when one is informed via the dust-jacket that "Jane Mander was the first New Zealand-born novelist to portray her country in terms which carry both conviction and illumination to the modern reader" there is a promise that the 1971 publication of Allen Adair will "illuminate" what were formerly dark spots in one's knowledge of New Zealand. Unfortunately however, the modern reader will find his expectations far from fulfilled. Indeed, the main feature of Allen Adair is that it probably could have been written anywhere, anytime and about any place. Of course, this in itself cannot be taken as a total condemnation of the novel, but if there was ever anything unique about the effects of the Kauri gumfields of North Auckland, where the novel is set, on a young man with dreams such as Allen Adair, Mander fails to convey exactly what. Then again, perhaps she did not really try, an impression that is fostered by the basically simple, even "domestic" character of the novel.
Allen Adair is a young man who, surprisingly, fails to conform to his father's expectations, and even an enforced session away at Oxford fails to instil in Allen the conventional ambitions his father seeks to promote. Having reached a "generation-gap-style" stalemate, Allen then allows his "restless spirit" to lead him to North Auckland lured by the aura of adventure which supposedly surrounds the Kauri gumfields. At first he works a river delivery-boat service, before selling himself up as a provisioned of general supplies to the men working in the gum-fields. He then marries Marion, with whom he proves unable to strike up a deep empathic liason, - at least not as deep as that he slowly forms with another somewhat mysterious resident of the gum-fields. Dick Rossiter. This is not to suggest that Mander hints at anything remotely homosexual in the relationship of the two men; rather she seeks to convey the development of a bond, albeit largely unspoken, of the kind that is possible only between men and not between a man and a woman. The intention is clear, but the development of the theme is anything but convincing. Allen is a shadowy figure and because we are never really able to get close to the spirit which motivates him, we are doubly frustrated in trying to understand the nature of his relationship with Dick. Indeed the novel as a whole suggests that Mander is often treading on ground she does not really know herself, but which she seeks to understand better through artistic expression. Occasionally, however, we strike a passage in the book which contrasts sharply with its generally domestic character, thereby morroring the contrast between Allen's vision and what he learns to know as reality. For example, while watching Marion coming out of the door of his cottage followed by his daughter Joan, Allen "felt an exaltation of feeling as if he had been lifted off the earth by some invisible force going mysteriously by him on the hillside. Felt something inside him straining to get away from the limitations of his physical frame. He sat suspended between the power of thought and of action, as if he had become disembodied, not knowing what it was he felt, or what moved him so to feel. There was nothing left to him afterwards but a sensation of straining and floating to music perceived, but not heard. He lingered with the memory of it, knowing that the spell would be broken when he went down to the house." Such passages as this stand very much in isolation from the rest of the novel, and their contextual incongruity has the unfortunate effect of making what are possible Mander's more artistic inspirations, sound somewhat hollow and contrived. Indeed one may legitimately ask whether the soul of Allen Adair and the spirit Mander attempts to recreate might not have been better expressed in a poem. What then would be left of the novel provides little to enthuse over. Allen's marriage degenerates into an arrangement of convenience, with the materialistic Marion unable to share in his vision, nor his love of the country life. In a sense she symbolizes much that Allen was never able to be pat of, and when they eventually move into Auckland, it is the final spiritual capitulation. Still the book ends on an optomistic, if well-worn note, with Allen reconciling himself to the erosion of his dreams, while expressing a sentimental regard for some things past and a renewed hope for the future.
To say the books does not explore any original material is probably an understatement, nor can we accredit Mander with examining the pitfalls of such institutions as marriage, with any unusual degree of sensitivity. What is unusual however, is the way in which she attempts to bring the mundane and the lofty together into a total work of art. The somewhat disjointed, even puzzling impression which one is left with after reading Allen Adair is probably a fair measure of her success in this attempt. Yet if the book else, it undoubtedly arouses an interest far behind the sceneselse, it undoubtedly arouses an interest far book does nothing else, it undoubtedly arouses an interest far behind the scenes appearing only rarely though with noticeable impact. And indeed in the spirit of Allen Adair, I believe we can find an important key to this underexposed New Zealand authoress.