FROM THE oxford companion TO new zealand literature
McAlpine, Rachel (1940– ), poet, novelist and playwright, was born in Fairlie, where her father was a vicar. Educated at Christchurch GHS, Canterbury University College and Victoria University, she holds a BA (Hons) and Diploma in Education. From 1994 to 1995 she lectured at Kyoto’s Doshisha Women’s University .
McAlpine began writing poetry in 1974. Elizabeth Caffin, in OHNZLE, groups her debut collection, Lament for Ariadne (1975), alongside Lauris Edmond’s and Elizabeth Smither’s first books, as markers of an important new era for women’s poetry. By 1988 McAlpine had published six further collections: Stay at the Dinner Party (1977), Fancy Dress (1978), House Poems (1980), Recording Angel (1983), Thirteen Waves (1986) and Selected Poems (1988).
Her lyrical, apparently effortless, verse, makes the personal and local engaging: ‘Some days Wellington behaves—/ the air is sedimentary, / and workmen smoke on girders / and forget to demolish Lambton Quay’ (‘Energy Crisis’). Its unpretentious chattiness is complemented by witty and imaginative wordplay, although some critics have commented on a tone of excitability in her assertion of herself as a woman. Tourist in Kyoto (1993), which is suffused with Japanese iconography, pays particular attention to the haiku.
McAlpine’s first play, The Stationary Sixth Form Poetry Trip (1980), explored New Zealand adolescence through the medium of a sixth form class’s reinterpretation of Coleridge’s ‘Ancient Mariner’. Another large-cast play for young actors, Driftwood (1985), incorporating surfers and break-dancers, followed, and then Peace Offering (1988) and Power Play (1990). McAlpine’s facility with dialogue works well on radio: the powerful drama The Life Fantastic, documenting a young girl’s shift from fantasy to violence, was followed by Cats Don’t Marry, Quite Nice Really and The Op Shop Quartet.
Three novels, The Limits of Green (1986), Running Away from Home (1987) and Farewell Speech (1990), have polarised critics. In the futuristic Limits, a pair of greenies defeat the evil industrialists and destroy their lethal enterprises. Fay Weldon was moved to praise McAlpine as the only New Zealand writer taking risks and letting herself go, but Mark Williams commented that Limits’ ‘magic realism without the realism merely makes one nostalgic for the tradition derived from Sargeson such writing is supposedly replacing’ (JNZL 5, 1987).
Running, which reuses Limits’ setting, was judged more successful, with Anne French praising its ‘pace, narrative drive, crackling, energetic prose, and satisfactory resolution’ by comparison with its overloaded and ‘weakly mythic’ predecessor (Landfall 163, 1987). Farewell Speech steps back into the past to fictionalise the lives of three historical characters, the passionate suffragists Kate Sheppard and Ada Wells, and Ada’s eccentric daughter Bim. McAlpine felt Farewell ‘got nearer to the truth than a biography’, but critics decried its inaccuracy and its major slurs against the women.
McAlpine remained unbowed, calling her detractors ‘modern puritans trying to freeze-frame [Sheppard] in one position, in an act of prayer’ (NZ Listener, 18 Sep. 1993). She has also published one volume of short stories for children, Maria and Mrs Kominski (1990). PM
Author entry from The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature,
edited by Roger Robinson and Nelson Wattie (1998).