Noel Virtue Biography
Nationality: New Zealander. Born: 1947. Career: Formerly a zookeeper. Since 1987 a writer.
The Redemption of Elsdon Bird. London, Owen, and New York, Grove Press, 1987.
Then Upon the Evil Season. London, Owen, 1988.
In the Country of Salvation. Auckland, Random Century, and London, Hutchinson, 1990.
Always the Islands of Memory. London, Hutchinson, 1991.
The Eye of the Everlasting Angel. London, Owen, 1992.
Sandspit Crossing. London, Owen, 1993.
The Transfiguration of Martha Friend. Auckland and New York, Vintage, 1996.
Losing Alice. Auckland, Random House New Zealand, 1999.
Among the Animals: A Zookeeper's Story. London, Owen, 1988.
Once a Brethren Boy. (autobiography). Auckland, Vintage, 1995.
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A latecomer to novel writing, Noel Virtue has made a small but definite name for himself in contemporary New Zealand fiction. He has been in residence in the United Kingdom for much of his career, but returned to New Zealand in 1995 to launch his autobiography, Once a Brethren Boy, at New Zealand's first Gay and Lesbian Writing Festival, which was held at Auckland College of Education. Virtue was a catalyst for the Man to Man Gay and Lesbian Writing Festival designed to increase the visibility of lesbian and gay writing with publishers and the general public, and to provide motivation and support for aspiring writers.
Much of Virtue's fiction deals with a very peculiar family life which is psychologically brutal due to religious fanaticism. Britain's newly acclaimed novelist, Jeanette Winterston, portrays her self-discovery as a lesbian woman in a similarly constricting and religiously irrational home in her breakthrough book, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Virtue's approach to his fictional narratives about similar self-discoveries in an non-receptive, even hostile, environment differ from Winterston's postmodernism. His style and form are conservative, which is, perhaps, an aesthetic concession to the conservatism ingrained during his childhood. Nevertheless, the contrast of the conservative style to the liberal nature of the authorial narrative lends a powerful, even disturbing, tension that never ceases.
The Redemption of Elsdon Bird, Virtue's first work, is to my mind his most successful. In libraries it is often classed as teenage fiction, but this designation is misleading, as the emotions and themes it deals with are distinctly adult. Written in a spare, vivid style, it tells the story of a lonely youngster whose upbringing at the hands of "holy roller" parents is strange and nightmarish. Isolated by his family's religious convictions, Elsdon is the subject of constant physical abuse. He is systematically deprived of everyone and everything he loves, and at the conclusion of the book, he faces life alone. The story's plot development of such extreme personal loss would be almost unbearable were it not for the protagonist's poignantly cheerful character.
Critics have been fascinated by the contrasting elements in Elsdon Bird, such as the victim's cheerful optimism and innocence despite his heartless environment, and the cruel irony of evil in religiosity in most of Virtue's other work. They find a saintly virtue in the author's courage to redeem passion from the control of hypocritical and close-minded Bible thumpers. The price Virtue pays for his sincerity is a socially inbred guilt about who he is. In a 1990 interview, Virtue suggests that he is "dogged by hellfire and brimstone."
One can surmise that Virtue's reluctance to present his life and sincere beliefs caused most of the delays in the onset of his public life as an author. For many years, he worked as a zookeeper. These years are chronicled in his 1988 book, Among the Animals: A Zookeeper's Story. Anonymity, however, always rewards fiction writers with the ability to eavesdrop on the lives and speech of those around them. Virtue's skilled use of New Zealand slang is specific evidence of this, especially in combination with Elsdon Bird's innocent way of speaking in the debut novel, which is both comic and touching. It is the character's own innocent optimism that will rescue him from the concluding despair in the story's end.
Then Upon the Evil Season continues the themes of violence and religious mania. As in the earlier novel the focus is on a child, in this case a teenager, Lubin, who must cope with his parent's fundamentalist belief and the persecution they invite. Mixed in with this burdensome family life, there is a murder and two unusual animals, an ostrich and a dolphin, whose natural goodness serves to highlight man's cruelty and greed. It is a more ambitious novel than The Redemption of Elsdon Bird because the plot is much more complex and the number of significant characters is greatly increased. For these reasons, Then Upon the Evil Season is less successful than the first novel, for it lacks the earlier book's intensity. The characters—some are animal and some are human—seem to be allegorical figures designed for readers in their teens, but may appear to be stereotypes to adult readers.
With In the Country of Salvation, Virtue has attempted to write a properly adult novel, one that deals with several different lives over a long period of time. The main focus, once again, is on a lonely child, Billy, whose upbringing at the hands of religiously obsessed parents causes him much unhappiness, driving him to attempt suicide. Billy, as it happens, has a double cross to bear in that he is homosexual; however, all of the family members are injured and suffering in some real or imagined ways, until all achieve some kind of a redemptive state of forgiveness. This third novel is more ambitious than the first two, and some say that Virtue sometimes fails to sustain interest in a lengthy narrative. To some extent the problem lies with the characters themselves: lacking Elsdon's touching optimism, their unhappiness is more grueling than affecting. Another problem is that the focus of the novel is too diffuse. Subplots involving Colin and Seddon, Billy's older brothers, are interesting but tend to distract from, rather than complement, Billy's agony. Despite its flaws, In the Country of Salvation does have its moments.
Virtue's books gain in mastery as he continues to explore religious mania and the suffering it inflicts upon children. He has published five books since 1991 in addition to his autobiography. They include Always the Islands of Memory, The Eye of the Everlasting Angel, Sandspit Crossing, The Transfiguration of Martha Friend, and Losing Alice. The most recent additions to Virtue's oeuvre continue in the development of his perspicacious voice, one that is moral and decent without the negative impositions of zealous religion.
updated by Hedwig Gorski